Education takes center stage as Oklahoma state senators take oath of office
There will be future disagreements, but Wednesday was a day for smiles and —introductions as the oath of office was administered to state senators who were either re-elected or won election for the first time this year.
Twelve of the winning candidates will be new to the Senate, so one-fourth of the 48-member Senate will face a learning curve as they set out to conduct the people's business.
One of those new members, Carri Hicks, D-Oklahoma City, wasted no time in letting her new colleagues know her top priority.
When it came time for Senate introductions, Hicks took the microphone and not only introduced members of her family, but also two children from her first kindergarten class.
"I'm fighting for your futures," Hicks declared.
"My top priority is to just continue to push for progress on education and making sure that we really look at where the dollars are to put back into our classrooms," Hicks said later in a brief interview. "We know that our classroom sizes are too large."
Joining Hicks in her push to make education the top priority will be newly elected Sen. Julia Kirt, D-Oklahoma City.
"I want to do whatever I can to support public education and I'm looking to leadership to tell us what that is," Kirt said. "I have a great interest in arts education and I care a lot about how our schools handle special education and dyslexic students."
Kirt and Hicks were the only two Democratic Senate candidates who managed to take over seats previously held by Republicans during the 2018 elections.
Kirt won the Senate seat previously held by Republican Sen. David Holt, who successfully ran for Oklahoma City mayor this year. Hicks won the seat previously held by Sen. Ervin Yen, a medical doctor who encountered opposition from medical marijuana advocates and some constituents upset with his efforts to strengthen childhood vaccination laws.
The lone Republican who managed to take a Senate seat previously held by a Democrat was John Michael Montgomery, R-Lawton, who won the seat previously held by Randy Bass, who was term limited.
Although Democrats gained one Senate seat in the 2018 elections, Republicans remain firmly in control with 39 seats, while Democrats now control nine.
The top Republican and Democrat positions in the Senate both will be held by Oklahoma City residents.
President Pro Tem-elect Greg Treat, who will hold the top Republican position, and Senate Minority Leader Kay Floyd, who will hold the top Democratic position, both said they expect education and the budget to be high priorities when the Legislature goes back into session.
"My own personal priorities: make sure we keep the commitments to education, make sure that we have a better budgeting system moving forward — that we actually operate on real numbers, objective numbers," Treat said.
"The budget is going to continue to be the issue that dominates the next Legislative session," Floyd predicted. "I understand numbers are coming in and we're looking a little better so far, but we're a good 10 to 12 years behind.... We've got to get money back into the classroom, to our teacher, to support staff, to supplies and textbooks."
Floyd said lawmakers managed to "slow the bleeding" last year, but need to "invest more to bring teachers back into Oklahoma."
The budget and education are issues the Legislature has wrestled with for years, but Treat and Floyd said they also expect to deal with some new issues, like developing new medical marijuana laws to carry out the wishes expressed by Oklahoma voters. Legalized sports betting is another issue that is likely to be considered, they said.
Floyd said House Democrats remain very concerned about health care in the state, citing the recent closure of the Pauls Valley hospital.
"We believe that affordable health care needs to be on the table," she said. "That doesn't necessarily mean that we expand Medicaid. We've got to make affordable health care in this state part of the discussion."
Floyd says she's optimistic that Senate Democrats will be able to work well with Senate Republicans to solve the state's problems.
Wednesday was the Senate's day at the Capitol. House members will be sworn into office Thursday.
Lawmakers will next return to the state Capitol at noon on Jan. 8 for an organizational meeting. The first day of the next session is scheduled to be Feb. 4.