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Explanation on recently passed bills, homelessness and mental health discussed at Legislative Briefing

Area and federal lawmakers gave updates and answered questions from constituents at Go Ye Village Friday, April 26, during the Legislative Briefing.

The event, which is hosted by the Tahlequah Area Chamber of Commerce, featured 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. Each gave further explanation to recently passed bills and what they’re working on next.

Representatives from United States Sen. Mark Wayne Mullin and Congressman Josh Brecheen offices opened the forum with what they’re seeing on the federal level.

Josh Hildabrand, field representative United States House of Representative Josh Brecheen, read from the National Debt Clock, saying it’s $34,595,000,000 as of Friday morning.

“If you take our mandatory spending, which is veteran benefits, Social Security benefits, Medicare, Medicaid, you take that plus the interest that’s due on our debt, this is 100 percent of what we got coming in,” Hildabrand said. “One-hundred percent of it is borrowed money. That’s why this is important.”

He added that bringing conservative values back to the nation is what can be done to help.

“The second thing we’re concerned about is our border. Listen, I’ve talked to hundreds of people every single week. I can tell you three things that are on their list, top three conservatives right now; it’s border security; it’s the economy, which is the budget; and it’s getting rid of [President Joe Biden],” he said.

Josh Owen, deputy state director for U.S. Senator MarkWayne Mullin, said the senator serves on the Senate Armed Service committee; Environment and Public Works committee; Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee; and Indian Affairs committee.

“Year one, we were able to secure $152 million through the [National Defense Authorization Act], that goes directly to our military instillation for the state of Oklahoma, which as most of you know is a huge industry for the state but there’s a lot of things we would not be able to do if we did not support our military the way that we do,” Owen said.

Mullin supports Congressionally Directed Spending, when funding and appropriation bills are passed, entities can apply for direct spending dollars.

“If you have a project that you’re working on, you can submit those directly and it goes through a committee, goes through an appropriations process and the thought process for Sen. Mullin is, ‘Those dollars, if we don’t try and get those projects back to Oklahoma, all of that money is spent anyway. So, it’s going to go to states like California, New York, and Texas and why would we let that money go there instead of trying to invest all of those dollars in the state of Oklahoma,’” Owen said.

Additionally, Owen touched on the subject of the border crisis and the economy, and how those are the two biggest issues discussed in Washington D.C.  

“Whenever it comes to the economy, ‘Bidenomics’ is not working. Oklahoma families are seeing that everyday whenever you go to the grocery store, when you’re paying all your bills. My favorite saying on this, ‘I remember when $100 dollars on groceries used to have to go in the trunk, now it fits in the passenger seat,’” Owen said.

The panel spent about 10 minutes introducing themselves before Jonathan Hook asked what they’re doing to combat homelessness.

Stephens said he supports the WRAP Project in Cherokee and Wagoner counties, which is helping people with their challenges and addictions.

“I continue to work in that effort and support those programs and to address this because, you’re right. That’s the things I’m doing, and I will continue to learn more and support those programs as well,” he said.

Pemberton said it’s an issue across the nation and he’s seeing more of it in Oklahoma. He added that a lot of it has to do with addiction and mental health.

“A large percentage of those that are on the streets are because of mental health and that’s something the legislature has done,” he said. We have to be able to deal with the issues that they have in order to help them better,” Pemberton said.

Hardin, who worked in law enforcement, said the state was pouring a lot of money into mental health.

“Over the years, the state started decreasing that funding. We’re going to have to bring that back because a lot of homeless that you’re talking about, we need to define – is there some mental issues that we need to get them some help or do we just need to get them in training. Do we need to get programs to get them into training so that we can get them into the workforce, get them into long-term housing,” Hardin said.

Culver agreed with what the panelists said and added that the House budget increased $45 million to Health and Human Services, which includes mental health.

“We realize the problem. We’re trying to get money to alleviate that problem. If you put the Health and Human Services together, the House rolled out their budget that was just a little shy of $13 billion,” he said.

Christopher Wier, Democratic candidate for House District 4, said he had concerns with House Bill 36 that was recently passed. He asked the panel why they voted the way they did.

The bill permits chaplains and religious figures to be hired as counselors in public schools.

“That bill, we need a separation of church and state,” Culver said.

Hardin said he voted no on the bill and Stephens and Pemberton said they’d have to go back and read the bill.

“I remember when the bill was presented and basically, I think it was a local-control issue, the way it was presented. It’s up to the school districts and boards of education to decide whether they want to allow a chaplain to come into the school and act in some capacity. I’m a big local-control person so I think you elect your board members to make those decisions. Unless a chaplain has also a counseling degree, it doesn’t say that you can’t have a counseling degree and not be a practicing Christian or be a religious figure. I still think that obviously those issues are not things you want to discuss in the counseling office, but at the same time local-control has always been big,” Pemberton said.

Former Tahlequah Mayor Sue Catron asked the panel why House Bill 1449 is good for Oklahoma, and particularly women. The bill, dubbed as the “Women’s Bill of Right,” gives state or local governments the ability to define gender for places such as shelters, prisons, restrooms, and locker rooms.

Pemberton said there was a lot of debate on the Senate floor and several pieces of legislation have been passed the last few years to protect women. He said this bill will continue to add protection to women.

“I think the main focus of this bill was basically to make sure that we identified, I think a lot of that bill is definitions - what is a woman, what is a man. I don’t know why they didn’t call this the ‘Men and Women’s Bill of Rights’ because it had both in there to be honest,” Pemberton said.

Stephens said it’s unfortunate that it comes to a time when those in society must protect one another.

“How do you even talk about the fact that people going into men’s bathrooms or women’s bathrooms. How come is it that in our society today, that we have to run legislation like this to make sure that we people that are going into bathrooms that they don’t belong in,” Stephens said. “We’re having to make sure we’re safe in those bathrooms for our ladies and our children, and also athletic facilities, locker rooms, domestic violence shelters, rape crisis centers, prisons, and detention centers.”

Hardin said it’s a very controversial issue and it’s something wherein everybody’s rights are protected.

“It’s hard to do that with the society that we’re in today because society is changing and as society changes at some point, we have to move the bar,” he said. “It was a very tough vote; it was very controversial. I voted on it basically because of my experience in law enforcement and what I had seen.”

Culver agreed with the panelists, saying there are two sexes: a man and a woman.

“We need to protect both men and women so this bill, we hope, will get that done,” he said. “It’s not that big of a problem here in Tahlequah, Cherokee County, but across the state, it is a problem so this is one fix we voted on to get that done and accomplished where men and women are separate individuals.”


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