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PAVE forum: Senate candidates talk medicaid expansion, justice reform, tapping TSET

By Vicky O. Misa | Vicky.misa@news-star.com | (405) 214-3962 | Twitter: @Vicky_NewsStar
The Shawnee News Star

Last week PAVE (Pottawatomie Advocates for Voter Education) hosted a candidate forum for 11 hopefuls running for offices relating to county and state seats, though two did not participate.

Among them were candidates running for state Senate seats. Competing for the state Senate District 17 position are Incumbent Ron Sharp, Brandon Baumgarten and Shane Jett. Vying to secure the state Senate District 28 seat are Zack Taylor, Mike Haines and Christian Ford.

Ford was not in attendance; he did not participate in the forum. The rest of the candidates offered their take on several issues; here are some of the questions and responses.

QUESTION: Gov. Stitt's medicaid expansion bill was not supported by his own Republican majority legislature; would you support State Question 802 Medicaid Expansion? Why or why not?

RESPONSES:

• Baumgarten (17) — I would look at the state question and tell you that where we're at right now in the society of Oklahoma, in terms of our unemployment funds and the way things have been exhausted at the state Capitol, I'm not in favor of that state question. I believe it is going to hook us into something that we are going to be having to contribute to for years to come. I don't like Uncle Sam having to dictate what type of health care we need to have. I'm all about for the free market and making sure we have the resources in place so our people can have the affordable health care later. There are definitely opportunities down the road for us to improve on our healthcare, but right now our priority is to vote no on that state question.

• Jett (17) — Other legislative candidates pointed out the legislature actually did support Gov. Kevin Stitt; he ended up vetoing his own initiative because of the budget situation. SQ 802 is basically the Federal Government to force the Obamacare provisions onto the state, obligating us to follow Federal rules and preventing your elected officials from actually addressing it because they have to deal with the constitution. SQ 802 is a bad bill. It hurt our budget, especially with the upcoming budget crunch, by obligating us to pay $1 for every $9 we receive from the Federal Government. Piling more money onto a bad system just means you are going to squander more money. Lobbyists with the OCMA are in favor of it, but the doctors right here in this district are opposed to it.

• Sharp (17) — Unfortunately as the incumbent Senator, I am not allowed , under ethics rules, to give an opinion of the state question once it has been presented by the people in an issue petition, and now it's before the people. All I can say is that those who are proponents of it believe that 90 percent of the funds are going to be provided by the state of Oklahoma, it will be provided to 18- to 65-year old individuals. Many people feel like we are negating using these Federal funds. On the other hand, 10 percent will have to be paid by the state of Oklahoma — that's about $160 to $200 million, depending on exactly how many will take advantage of this, and this will be problematic basically due to the volatility of our budget because we will either have to raise taxes to come up with that money or we will have to cut existing services. That's the decision the people will have to make on June 30.

• Haines (28) — I would say that Gov. Stitt's Medicaid expansion (SoonerCare 2.0) actually was supported by our legislature — in that they did support and give him the money necessary to get that done, and he vetoed that. One of the reasons he did, was because of the large amount of fraud we had for unemployment. So, he was looking at significant deficits in the future. So he vetoed that spending bill. SQ 802 is a response to our Oklahoma legislature not doing its job, and approaching the health care issues we have. It is a constitutional amendment that actually makes it to where the legislature must spend what the Federal Government requires us to spend for that. That ties our hands in a significant way. They've already up'd the amount of spending we would have to do from zero percent to 10 percent, and if they move that to 20 percent we could be looking at having to spend the entire budget of the Department of Corrections on medicaid expansion.

• Taylor (28) — SoonerCare 2.0 was supported by the legislature; it was vetoed by the governor because of some of the issues Mr. Haines mentioned. It was thought by the governor and his office and his team that too many things had changed since he first announced that plan. He didn't feel comfortable — he though it was going to be too much money at the wrong time. As far as 802 goes, I don't agree with that State Question. I don't think it's a good idea to put medicaid expansion in the constitution. I think it's too rigid. It doesn't allow any adjustment or allow for any work requirements. It dictates how we are going to have to take the Federal money and how we are going to spend it. I personally will be voting against 802. I don't think it's the right plan for Oklahoma. I think there are better plans out there, and better ways to do that.

QUESTION: Would you support a state question reforming the state's Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust (TSET) to grant legislators greater authority to tap the fund?

RESPONSES:

• Sharp (17) — I voted against the change in TSET. You're just robbing Peter to pay Paul. If we remove that money from programs like Gateway, then how are we going to fund Gateway — we'd have to do it from general funds. You're not accomplishing any major feat by doing that and that's where we have the institutional knowledge to know these agencies must be funded — whether it's Gateway or others — they are dependent upon those funds, so why would we want to deplete those and then have to come back with the general appropriations to do it? It's functioning well now, TSET is done by a vote of the people, so why create a problem? That's what we've all agreed upon; these agencies need to be funded, and that's exactly what TSET does. Why mess with that? I found it ridiculous.

• Jett (17) — This is another example of where the public has lost faith, somewhat, in the legislature. They want to provide a safe lockbox to prevent it from being squandered or moved in the wrong direction. Supporting central services like Gateway — the intention of TSET was to offset the tobacco and what it was doing to our health in the community, so I think it would be going against the intention of what it was for.

• Baumgarten (17) — I don't think we should be circumventing what the people decided on the previous state question. I am for keeping it as-as.

• Taylor (28) — I did support a state question this past year that changed the amount of new money coming in. Every year there is more settlement money that comes into the TSET Fund. This state question that we voted on by the people changes some, where about 25 percent of that money goes; it would allow that money to be spent on health care, and hopefully help our rural health care issues. That is just an issue for the people to decide. The people initially put the TSET Fund in place. They voted on it. I did support allowing people to vote on this state question. I think the people should be able to decide. It's been a while now since that's been addressed, so I am supportive of that.

• Haines (28) — That's a difficult question. One of the reasons that often you see state legislatures not be able to access funds like this — and it's where you see the apportionments being so low and Oklahoma finances because the legislatures are often not trustworthy with being able to access those funds. So what happens is people want to protect that. It's the reason SQ 802 was put forward as a constitutional amendment. I believe fundamentally we need to be able to have legislators make that decision. Right now, what we are doing is tying the hands of the legislature, to where often they can't make adjustments. But I say that with great trepidation, because it is often the case that what happens is what they get to touch they waste.

QUESTION: Despite the governor commuting nearly 400 incarcerated felons, Oklahoma's incarceration rates are too high. Would you work to support legislation to reform our justice system and focus more funding on drug and mental health reform?

RESPONSES:

• Jett (17) — Yes, through the Legislature I worked in 2008 with the Academy for State Bills, who specifically look at and pull people out of prison to have a panel discussion to see how they went in, what the experience was, and how we could reform it. We are spending a tremendous amount of money on the incarceration program. Sen. Laster said it very well during that period, he said, 'We need to vote on putting people in prison that we're afraid of, not the ones we're mad at.'

That is very important. I've worked with and had lengthy conversations with Kris Steele; this is something that needs to be done. We need to be looking at health care. Prisons are not where you send people with mental health issues; it's where you send people you're afraid of. I would work to continue those initiatives.

• Baumgarten (17) — I would also look to reform those types of issues. I think we have an over-incarceration problem. We jail a lot of people. Instead of reprimanding people we need to rehabilitate people. In order for us to more forward, we've got to value life and value those, even in prison — that they have paid their time and we can help them move on with the rest of their life. If they are dealing with mental illness, we get them the help they need. Moving forward I think that's something we can improve on together as a state legislature.

• Sharp (17) — SQ 780 and 78 were passed during my eight years as a legislator. We have done everything we can to improve on those statutes to try to make sure we are actually providing the criminal justice reform as it was intended by the voters. And also make sure our schools are safe. We are doing everything possible to improve the conditions of those in prison, providing mental health treatment. The best way to resolve our penal system is provide a quality public education system and make sure every child has the abilities to get a job, provide the counseling services there and to ensure our families are stable, by providing them counseling services. That's where we really need to look at it. trying to make sure our own structure is sound.

• Haines (28) — I will. As a pastor I do a lot of addiction counseling and I also spend a lot of time in very broken homes. Just sending people to prison doesn't help, because they go in one door and come out a number of years later. We're spending about $16,000 per year for those guys to go into a minimum security prison — and so you're spending about $45,000 to send somebody in one door, house them for three years and pull them out another door, send them home and then do the exact same thing again. In the meantime you've got children in that home and so that person is either away in prison or in the home using drugs or doing other things. These are not economically efficient and they are terrible for our communities. They are killing our schools. Our schools' special education rates are going through the roof because these kids are being damaged in their homes and they end up getting special education, which is the most expensive of all education.

• Taylor (28) — Yes, I would work on legislation to support such things. I think the missing piece of 780 and 781 is local treatment programs — at the local level and at the counties, where they're needed most. There are some of our prisons that do a good job with treatment. Mabel Bassett is one of them. I can tell you that the women's prison up there does a good job with those women, and sends out what you would consider a reformed product. I think we need to expand on programs like that. We must focus on funding for local treatment in our counties to truly turn people around and help them reintegrate into society and get back into gainful employment. That is something I have worked on in the House with occupational license reform for people that have made mistakes in the past, allowing them to get back into the workforce — not having that barrier of a licensing they can't obtain because they have a criminal background.

Other races

Three candidates are running for Pottawatomie County Sheriff: Incumbent Mike Booth, Jeff Griffith and Ben Henderson.

For District 2 County Commissioner, Incumbent Randy Thomas and Jason Evans seek the seat.

The election is June 30.

Visit news-star.com to view more stories reporting candidate responses to some of the top issues discussed at the forum.