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Taxes, teachers, transportation dominate Legislature's agenda

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ After six weeks of work, Oklahoma lawmakers are reciting a mantra they'll repeat over and over again as they work toward adjournment on May 26: taxes, teachers, transportation.

Dozens of bills and resolutions dealing with those issues are among the more than 1,000 pieces of legislation that survived the initial stage of the 2006 legislative process. Thursday marked the deadline for legislation to be considered in their house of origin. If not heard, bills and resolutions effectively died.

Surviving the process were two massive election-year income tax cuts. The Republican-controlled House voted to cut the maximum income tax rate from 6.25 percent to 5.85 percent, a $130 million cut. The Democrat-controlled Senate approved a $480 million cut, from a top rate of 6.25 percent to 4.9 percent.

The House bill was carried by GOP House Speaker Todd Hiett, and the Senate bill was authored by Sen. Scott Pruitt, R-Broken Arrow. Both are running for lieutenant governor in this fall's election.

Hiett is also pushing repeal of the estate tax, an $87 million reduction. ``If we permanently cut the income tax rate and eliminate the death tax, our state will grow and we'll see better jobs and higher wages in Oklahoma,'' he said.

The Senate passed a popular measure calling for a three-day sales tax holiday on back-to-school items in August, similar to one in Texas.

But one tax bill with public support did not survive the process. A proposal to eliminate the sales tax on groceries by Rep. Thad Balkman, R-Norman, was not heard on the House floor prior to Thursday's deadline.

Oklahoma is one of just 16 states that taxes groceries, and Balkman said he thinks it's ``morally wrong.''

``It's a tax cut that benefits all Oklahomans. Everybody buys groceries,'' Balkman said.

In spite of its failure this year, Balkman said he's not giving up on the idea.

``Like a lot of worthwhile things, it's going to take time to make it happen,'' he said. ``This hasn't been a priority, on the Republican or the Democrat side. I've kind of been by myself on this issue.''

Teachers and the students they teach have also been a priority in the House and the Senate.

The Senate passed a $339 million spending package for public schools, including a $3,000 across-the-board pay increase for public teachers, and sent it to the House for action.

Meanwhile, the House passed legislation to implement a task force's recommendations to increase classroom accountability. The bill requires that students pass four out of seven end-of-instruction exams to graduate from high school. Two of the exams must be Algebra I and English II.

``We're doing more to make sure Oklahoma students have all the instruction they need to be a success when they get into the workplace,'' Hiett said.

The House was divided on measures that would authorize the teaching of alternative theories to evolution in public school science classes and allow students to leave school for one hour each week for religious instruction. Both measures passed and were sent to the Senate, where opponents say they expect them to die.

A Senate plan to expand the number of students who qualify for college scholarships under the Oklahoma Higher Learning Access Program was sent to the House, where lawmakers have expressed concern about its cost.

Senate president Pro Tem Mike Morgan, D-Stillwater, estimated the proposal would increase OHLAP's estimated cost to $176 million in nine years.

``In the Senate, we made it clear that we are focused on creating a better tomorrow for our children,'' Morgan said.

Transportation issues have also dominated the legislative agenda. The House and Senate quickly passed legislation that will provide $100 million to repair or replace the worst state bridges and $25 million to fix the worst county road bridges. Gov. Brad Henry signed the measure last week.

The House has approved a separate plan to double investment in road maintenance and repair over the next four years. The new money will come on top of an extra $111.8 million allocated to road maintenance and bridge repair last year.

``This plan doubles the investment in roads without raising taxes,'' Hiett said.

Separate House and Senate health care proposals are likely to stir debate as the Legislature enters the next phase of its work.

The House sent the Senate a massive Medicaid reform measure that pumps an additional $93 million into the health care system for the poor.

Supporters say it will improve health care for more than 687,000 low-income recipients and increase reimbursement rates to health care providers. But opponents are concerned that sweeping changes may eliminate services for some recipients.

The House and Senate have passed separate drug reimportation plans that would permit Oklahoma pharmacies to obtain U.S.-made prescription drugs from Canada and other countries for sale to Oklahomans. The federal Food and Drug Administration claims drug reimportation bills in other states violate the Interstate Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The Senate has also proposed expanding the premium assistance program, a plan backed by Henry that was approved last year. The bill is pending in the House.

The measure would increase from 25 to 50 the number of workers a business can employ to participate in the program that allows employees of small businesses to get health insurance by sharing the cost with the state and the employer.
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