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January 5, 2013

State lawmakers to focus on several issues in new year

STILLWATER, Okla. — State lawmakers from the Stillwater area are focused on education, workers’ compensation reform, health care and jobs for 2013.

State Rep. Cory Williams, D-Stillwater, is on the Higher Education and Career Tech committee. Williams said there is a debate every year about whether an institution’s board of regents or the state legislature should have the power to set tuition. He said control should remain with the board.

The state has to find a way to assist higher education without simply throwing money at it, Williams said.

State Rep. Dennis Casey, R-Morrison, said funding for rural schools is important to him as he represents a largely rural area, including the edge of Stillwater, Perry, Cleveland and Perry.

State Sen. Jim Halligan, R-Stillwater, said he would like to emphasize education in 2013. Students need four years of math to be competitive, he said.

“Funding for public schools is my No. 1 priority,” Halligan said.

State Rep. Lee Denney, R-Cushing, said she didn’t want to increase the budget, but would like to see more money diverted to schools.

“We need to realign our priorities and get more money into our classrooms,” Denney said.

Halligan said he wanted to emphasize truth in lending for college loans. Both parents and students need to be aware of how much money they are borrowing because college loans can’t be excused through bankruptcy, he said. Students need to know starting salaries and their chances of being employed once graduating, he said. He said he wants all Oklahoma students to be able to make a good living after graduating college.

“That dream has not been realized,” Halligan said.

Williams said the business development of ASCO, a Belgium aerospace company set to begin operations in Stillwater in 2014, and Total Energy, which manufactures storage tanks and pressure valves, points to Stillwater’s need to develop a trained workforce.

Williams said he wanted to focus on a well-trained workforce and tax credits for business which are directly tied to jobs in Oklahoma. Williams is the vice-chair of the Tax Credit and Economic Oversight Committee.

Williams said the current workers’ compensation laws don’t offer a stable environment for businesses. He said money awarded to plaintiffs should match the injuries sustained.

“We have to address fraud in the system. Fraud is not encouraged, but allowed,” Williams said.

Halligan said he would like to minimize the role of lawyers in workers’ compensation by moving toward more administrative fixes rather than judicial ones.

Denney said she wanted to see workers’ compensation reform as well.

“Our businesses pay exorbitant rates in workers’ compensation,” Denney said. “Our responsibility is to make Oklahoma the best business environment possible.”

Williams said the Affordable Care Act, enacted by Congress in March 2010, is the law of the land and state lawmakers need to get past political differences and carry out its provisions.

“We need to stop using a ‘wait and see’ approach,” Williams said.

Gov. Mary Fallin announced in November she would not set up a health care exchange, which is an electronic marketplace to allow consumers to shop for coverage, or expand Medicaid to include everyone who lives in a household at or below 133 percent of the federal poverty level. Fallin has said the program is not affordable and federal guidelines are too strict.

Denney said she believes the governor made a wise decision.

Casey said he encouraged people to educate themselves on the pros and cons of the law. He said he was concerned about the states’ rights.

“If we continue to allow the federal government to help us, there’s always strings attached to everything,” Casey said.

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