On May 25, the last gavel went down on a very controversial and hard-fought session for OPEA, state agencies, and other organizations that work during session. While the lack of consensus among the House and Senate and the conservative and moderate House members prevented bills from making it through the budget maze, the discord also prevented a major tax cut. OPEA and many legislators argued that the potential revenue losses from phasing out the income tax could have devastated the state budget for the foreseeable future.
“The 2012 session was one of the busiest OPEA has ever experienced, said OPEA Executive Director Sterling Zearley. “Not only were we challenged to move OPEA legislation forward, but the Association was highly successful at defense. We managed to stop legislation that would have threatened the existence of the organization and the basic structure of civil service.”
OPEA began the session monitoring over 250 bills. Many were shell bills that could have become a problem for state employees in individual agencies. By the time the session had ended, OPEA had stopped or changed all bills of concern.
Saving the Benefit Allowance
Preserving the benefit allowance was an important issue for state employees this session. HB 3053 (Steele, David) sets the benefit allowance at the 2012 amount or HealthChoice High option, whichever is greater. The 75 percent for dependents remains in effect, but it will be based on the HealthChoice rate, also.
According to the Office of State Finance, the health insurance plans offered to state employees will be restructured for the next plan year by eliminating the higher cost plans. These plans are chosen by less than two percent of state employees, even though the state spends hours bidding the product and uses their price to determine the benefit allowance. Without the changes in HB 3053, the benefit allowance would plummet and state employees could lose hundreds of dollars.
Currently, the benefit allowance is set by calculating the average of the high option health insurance plans available to state employees, plus the average of all the dental plans, plus basic life and disability. If the high option plans are eliminated and not included in the benefit allowance calculation, the HMO alternative plans would be used to calculate the benefit allowance. This could cause an individual employee’s benefit allowance to decrease by approximately $130 per month and a family of four could lose as much as $380 per month.
A drop in the benefit allowance could seriously affect family budgets of employees who have not received a pay increase since 2006.
OPEA worked hard to pass a state employee bonus to ensure that any savings to state agencies due to the change in the benefit allowance would be rolled back into employees’ compensation. Because the rates are not set until August, there was no information available to verify the savings. OPEA has been discussing this issue with state leaders and will introduce legislation to provide state employees with a bonus early in session to recapture any savings. Fortunately, the claims experience for HealthChoice has been good this year and they do not anticipate a significant increase that would cause state employees to lose funds in their paychecks.
HB 3053 Initially added the Merit Protection Commission (MPC) to the new Office of Enterprise and Management Services (formerly the Office of State Finance). Last session, the Employees Benefits Council, State and Education Group Insurance Board, Office of Personnel Management and Central Services were consolidated into OEMS. OPEA stopped the consolidation of MPC into the new agency in the Senate, because of the critical need for that agency to remain independent. In addition, the House version of HB 3053 would have unclassified all the employees in the consolidated agency. OPEA changed that in the Senate, also.
OPEA’s compensation bill, HB 3041 by Leslie Osborn, was not heard in the House. However, throughout session OPEA met with the governor’s office and the Pro Tempore regarding a bonus for state employees and an interim study on a long term plan for state employee market compensation. Both were supportive of helping state employees this year.
OPEA members, both at OPEA Day and throughout session did a great communicating to legislators the need for a bonus for state employees. As session progressed, several legislators in leadership positions voiced support for a state employee bonus. While other leaders supported a bonus for state employees, Speaker Steele, who termed out this session, did not make the bonus a priority and the issue was not brought up for consideration.
The governor’s office, Senate leadership, and the Speaker designate T.W. Shannon have all endorsed an interim study on state employee market compensation beginning in September. Unlike past studies, this will include the leadership of the legislature and the governor’s office and will investigate funding for a market-based total compensation plan.
Several bills were filed this session regarding the state pension systems, including one by OPEA to allow cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) for well-funded systems.
OPEA requested legislation to allow COLAs from the assets of a retirement system if the system is at least 80 percent funded after the COLA has been granted. HB 2747 (Rep. John Enns-Waukomis) was not heard in committee at the beginning of session. OPEA plans to pursue this legislation next year.
HJR 1091 (Rep. Randy McDaniel and Sen. Patrick Anderson) also did not make it through the process. This resolution would have referred the COLA restrictions passed in 2011 to a vote of the people. If the ballot resolution had passed during elections this fall, COLAs would be severely restricted and the prohibition would be enshrined in the Oklahoma Constitution. If passed in session and affirmed in an election, state retirees would have lost any chance of passing the 80 percent COLA option.
The retired teachers organization requested SB 1102 (Anderson, Thomsen), which would have created a COLA fund for the Teachers Retirement System. OPEA had the bill amended in the House to include OPERS. The bill did not identify a process to put money in the fund. Time ran out before the bill was passed in the House. While this is a potentially good bill, with no funding it really does not help retirees.
Voluntary Payroll Deduction
At the beginning of session, HB 3111 (Hickman) and SB 1498 (Brown) would have taken away OPEA’s ability to receive funding for state employees through voluntary payroll deduction (VPD). Both bills, as introduced, would have removed VPD for employee organizations only, leaving 70 insurance companies, banks and credit unions with the opportunity. With the help of several legislative friends, OPEA stopped SB 1398 in Senate committee. Rep. Hickman was willing to work with OPEA on his bill and a change was negotiated to require all organizations to pay a minimal amount for VPD. The credit unions stopped this version of the bill in the Senate.
Classification of State Employees/Merit Protection System
At the beginning of session, Sen. Dan Newberry introduced SB 1046 which would unclassify all state employees. After several meetings, OPEA worked with Sen. Newberry to change the legislation to retain state employees in the classified service, strengthen supervisor training, require study before changing the merit system, and require that the Compensation and Unclassified Positions Review Board review any additions to the unclassified service. Although OPEA was supportive after the revisions, the bill was not heard in the House.
On the Thursday evening before session ended on Friday, a bill that would have unclassified a small number of employees made it to the House floor. SB 1974 was a last minute back door deal similar to the “unclassified catalogue” bills of the 80’s and 90’s. While this practice ended when the process was introduced to have proposals to unclassify employees reviewed by the Compensation and Unclassified Positions Review Board, several agencies attempted to bypass the process with SB 1974. In the end, the bill was strongly defeated on a voice vote.
At the beginning of session, OPEA stopped SB 1047 (Justice), which would have unclassified a number of Tourism employees.
Span of Control/FTE Limits
After reviewing current practices in state government, OPEA raised concerns with HB 2520, which would have required each supervisor in state government supervise at least 15 employees. OPEA brought concerns to the author about small rural offices, requirements that supervisors sign off on cases for workers, and the number of patient care assistants currently being supervised by nurses. In addition, OPEA had a provision changed that would have removed any positions from an agency that had not been filled in six months to allowing the agency to keep the position if it has been posted. Another provision would not allow agencies to double-fill positions longer than 30 days. OPEA worked to have this changed to 180 days. Although these sections were changed, the final version signed by the Governor only had language about strategic planning for agencies.
Fortunately, the majority of legislators agreed with OPEA that phasing out the state income tax without replacing that revenue stream to the state was potentially devasting to the budget. Because the proposal also eliminated some business tax the business community did not support the legislation either. Immediately after session, the Governor announced that they would continue to pursue a tax cut, so this issue will continue.
OPEA worked with the Office of State Finance (now OEMS) to pass HB 2647 (Brumbaugh/Jolley) which gives state employees more flexibility when using the Trip Optimizer system. The legislation allows state agencies to exempt employees from the system when using their personal vehicles and includes the distance to the rental car agency in the calculation for the travel. This bill has been signed by the Governor.
DHS Resource Centers
OPEA worked with the guardians of clients at the DHS resource centers to prevent the DHS plan to significantly downsize SORC from being implemented. The plan would have forced the relocation of over 100 of the most seriously disabled citizens in Oklahoma from their lifetime home in a little over a year. The most fragile clients require a lot of time to relocate because services must be established and caregivers trained. In addition, there is doubt that the same services the clients are receiving at the facilities would cost the same or are even available in the community.
OPEA, working with the guardians, passed the following legislation regarding the resource centers:
· HCR 1030 (Billy/Paddack) disapproves the DHS plan to significantly downsize the Southern Oklahoma Resource Center. Signed by the Governor.
· HR 1060 (Jackson) states legislative intent that the resource centers will not be closed while the legislature is not in session. Passed the House.
The next step is to persuade DHS to install sprinkler systems in the residential buildings. Even if the plan is to eventually close the facilities, the sprinkler systems must be installed by August 2013 or the state loses Medicaid funding. There is no way for alternative services to be available before the deadline. OPEA will continue to fight for this critical safety net our members provide for the disabled at the resource centers.
Other OPEA Bills
HB 2724 (Inman/Childers) requires state employees to be notified 30 days in advance of a furlough. Signed by the Governor.
SB 1083 (Barrington/Nelson) requires that employees who are affected by traumatic events in the workplace are offered counseling. Signed by the Governor.
HB 3009 (Terrill) expands the possibility of the death penalty to persons who murder a correctional employee. Currently, the law only applies to correctional officers. Signed by the Governor.
HB 1602 (Stiles) allows state employees whose job duties include direct or nursing care who are unable to use excess leave because the request is denied due to extraordinary circumstances to receive compensation for their excess leave. Was not heard in the Senate.
HB 2747 (Kirby/Ballenger) allows state retirees to opt back into state insurance when they become Medicare eligibility. Was not heard in House Committee.
HB 3008 (Terrill) increases the SoonerSave match from $25 to $50. Was not heard in House Committee.