Area lawmakers provided updates and answered questions from constituents at Go Ye Village Friday during the Legislative Briefing, hosted by the Tahlequah Area Chamber of Commerce.
State Sen. Dewayne Pemberton, R-Muskogee; State Sen. Blake Stephens, R-Tahlequah; State Rep. Bob Ed Culver, R-Tahlequah; and State Rep. David Hardin, R-Stilwell, discussed inflation relief, the lack of mental health resources, and American Rescue Plan Act funds.
Culver said he was able to run a bill that will bring $15 million in ARPA funds to Northeastern State University for construction to the new optometry school.
“It was a collaborative partnership with the county, the city here – the donations they were able to raise and what Cherokee Nation put in that was able to get the $15 million where they should be starting on this maybe around Sept. 1,” said culver.
Culver added that Tahlequah is the health care leader in Northeast Oklahoma, which brings in out-of-towners coming to the area. The bill will go to Gov. Kevin Stitt’s desk for his consideration.
“I was very excited when that bill passed and we were able to get our share of that to build this new optometry school,” he said.
The first question, asked by Michael Stopp, former chief of staff for Congressman Markwayne Mullin, pertaining to inflation rates and how legislators were approaching ARPA fund spending.
“Is that something you’re looking at to try to help the taxpayer relief, or is that something for you to look at next session? How are you guys at the state level trying to help? I know is not really your issue, but what are you trying to do right now?” Soap asked.
Culver said they were not looking at ARPA funds as inflation relief, per se, but to go toward infrastructure projects.
“For the inflation relief, the House sent eight bills to the Senate that we passed. Some are looking at quarter-percent reduction in the state income tax, [and] we did a quarter last session,” Culver said.
They are also looking at the possibility of a two-year moratorium on the state’s part of the grocery tax.
“Most of your municipalities, cities, counties – the grocery tax is a big part of their revenue,” Culver said.
Pemberton said there are certain guidelines as to how ARPA funds can be spent. Most of that money is going toward industrial parks and water management areas. Funds can be spent on health care as well. He said they have two years to spend the ARPA funds, and they can’t use them directly for inflation relief.
“We’re having to use our budget on that, and that’s why there are several different options. We had two that we sent to the governor and to the House, and that was a rebate of $181 million to the people of the state of Oklahoma,” Pemberton said.
The other bill was to restore the 1.25 percent vehicle sales tax cut that was raised in 2017. Pemberton said Stitt vetoed both of those bills and legislators chose not to override him. Now they are back to looking at the 4 percent income tax cut, and the grocery tax.
“The real issue is, do we do those indefinitely, or do we do those with a two-year moratorium,” he said.
Pemberton said that was the “common sense” way to go, as those cuts pulled $500 million, or half a billion dollars, out of the state budget.
“If you listen to the economists, we’re already in a recession [that] started about a month or two ago. We’re fixing to go off a cliff in about 2024, when all of these federal dollars goes away and then we’re going to be, ‘Oh, my God, we’re going to have to cut $1.5 billion out of the state budget. What happened?'” he said.
Stephens said eliminating the grocery tax would affect city, county, and state governments.
“They’re concerned about, not Texas, but all the rest of our neighbors around the state of Oklahoma and coming across our borders and buying their groceries. That’s going to make a difference, too,” Stephens said.
Hardin said there are two versions of the bill, and he worries about the two-year moratorium one because people may get used to paying no grocery tax, and they’d have to go back in and redo the sunset date.
“I want to make sure that when we take that grocery tax out, I don’t want [people to say]’Yeah, you got your tax off your groceries, but now we’re going to come back around and stick another tax in there,'” he said.
Local business owner Bryce Felts mentioned the issue of homeless people who are committing crimes and then being released back into the public. He wasn’t sure whether ARPA funds could be used if it was a mental health issue or a prison issue.
“Some of the ARPA dollars we’re looking at were going to the [Department of Human Services] to work with the mental health issue,” said Culver. “We have a 12-year waiting list to get services to a lot of the mental health areas that we funded this year to basically go to a no-waiting list.”
Hardin said other counties are seeing the same issues, and those experiencing homelessness are being bused to other cities in the state.
“Now when one city sees an issue, they’ll put them on a bus and send them somewhere else. It’s no longer our problem. We’re not fixing it, we’re just relocating the problem to somebody else,” he said .
He added that those experiencing mental health issues need help, and not jail.
“That’s what’s happening since the early ’90s. Instead of actually taking care of the problem, ‘Just put them in jail. Don’t worry about it, just stick them in jail,'” said Hardin.
Pemberton said the matter needs to be addressed for those who are adolescents.
“These people that are on the street now, these people with mental illnesses, they didn’t all of a sudden become mentally ill at [age] 35. They were mentally ill at 12 and 13,” he said. “We’re going to have to put a lot of money on the front end to deal with the problem on the back end.”