The Pryor Times

March 8, 2013

The road we’re on . . .

James Lockhart
Oklahoma District 3

— James Lockhart

Oklahoma District 3

Oklahoma’s middle class families are being placed on a road that will ultimately lead to hard times. Bill after bill being brought to the floor either weaken vulnerable families or strengthen the wealthiest individuals and corporations.

Case in point: House bill 1721 by Representative Leslie Osborn (R-Mustang) passed the floor Monday despite strong opposition from the House Democrats and a select few Republicans. This bill, if it makes it out of the Senate and off of the Governor’s desk with her signature, will limit the availability of the OHLAP/Oklahoma’s Promise scholarship program to the middle class.

This is undoubtedly the most harmful piece of legislation I have seen in my time at the State Capitol.

How ironic that we decide to renege on our “promise” to Oklahoma kids seeking to further their education while only the week before we passed Speaker T.W. Shannon’s (R-Lawton) HB2195, which will limit our state’s ability to borrow money by capping our bond debt, but exempting one of our largest borrowing entities – higher education.

To make this crystal clear, we’re allowing universities to continue to raise tuition and borrow money with zero accountability while on the other hand we’re removing financial aid for students whose parents’ combined income exceeds $60,000 upon their child’s graduation (saving us, by the way, a mere $1.7 million a year).

Until only a few years ago, the Legislature had to approve a tuition increase. Every time they did, however, legislators got blamed for “raising taxes.” So in the infinite wisdom of the Legislature, the Regents for Higher Education were given the authority to raise tuition without the Legislature's approval or consent.

Not surprisingly, the Regents for Higher Education have increased tuition the past two consecutive years. When other state agencies are tightening their belts because of declining revenues, higher education is simply passing the cost onto students and their families.

According to a spokesperson for the State Regents for Higher Education, the first wave of OHLAP recipients was in the 1996-97 school year when the average cost for a resident to attend a 4-year regional college - including tuition, fees, books and room and board - was only $4,493.35. To qualify then, the household income had to be $24,000 or less. Since then the initial eligible income has risen to $50,000 and the average cost for a resident to attend a 4-year regional college has risen to $11,162.66.

Call me crazy, but shouldn’t making higher education achievable for as many Oklahomans as possible be one of our top priorities as state leaders? As “pro-business” as House Leadership claims to be, they don’t seem to be taking into consideration that one of the most important factors in recruiting new businesses to our state is a well-educated workforce.

If we make it more difficult for working families to send their kids to college, we will continue to see a decrease in good paying jobs within the boundaries of our state.

This bill, in addition to numerous other bills coming from House Leadership this year, places us on a road to hard times for Oklahoma's working families. Too many people work 40 or more hours a week and still struggle to get to the end of the month. Even parents with decent jobs who hope to send their children through college debt free will have to make some really tough decisions in the near future.

Too many of my colleagues are willing to sell out the American Dream. The ladder to a better life is getting harder to climb. As a legislator, I prefer to leave something better behind for my fellow Oklahomans.

President John F. Kennedy once said our nation’s greatest natural resource is the human mind. I believe the same can be said for Oklahoma, and we’re neglecting it.