NORMAN, Okla. — In her eighth year in the House of Representatives, Rep. Emily Virgin (D-Norman) said the current session, with the legislature enjoying a budget surplus and focus on education funding, has been less contentious than in years past.
But while most everyone at the Capitol can agree that education funding should increase, how that money should be spent is a sticking point, and one the legislature has yet to move past.
"I think there is some common ground, the difference is level of funding and what we want to do with that money," Virgin said, adding that the Democrats believe a teacher pay raise, support staff pay raise and adding money to the funding formula is necessary. "The Senate Republicans just want money into the funding formula, the House Republicans are somewhere in between."
Regardless of how much of the surplus is added to education, Virgin said it's clear from the total cost of House education funding bills sent to the Senate that additional revenue is necessary.
"Last session we took a big step in that direction, but we haven't touched income tax or the capital gains exemption," she said. "We could adjust those and only affect a very small portion of Oklahomans. I think that's the only way we can get where we need to be when it comes to education and core services in general."
Virgin said before the session began that Medicaid expansion would be one of the priorities for House Democrats, and she reemphasized that last week.
"I think we're seeing some movement on that," she said. "We're getting to a point where the situation is just unsustainable, especially for the rural areas. There's no legislation right now for it, but there is a push to get it on the ballot in 2020, which I would be supportive of. But I hope we can get it done in the legislature, because that's our job."
Working with Sen. Kay Floyd, Virgin has a bill that would cover the potential situation the legislature was facing when Sen. Claudia Griffith died while campaigning for office last year.
"There was no provision in the law if she had already become the Democratic nominee, so this would give the party the ability to replace a nominee who passes away," Virgin said. "That was written by the election board secretary."
Other bills Virgin has worked on include an update on HIV/AIDS education and eliminating life sentences without parole for juveniles. She said, as the minority leader, representing the House Democrats' perspective is key.
"We've had a better working relationship with the other side of the aisle this year," she said. "The minority position sometimes doesn't lend itself to getting a lot of legislation passed, but it's very important for me to always represent the minority party's position, the minority voice of Oklahoma."