NORMAN — Sen. John Sparks, D-Norman, is one of a dwindling number of Democrats still in the state legislature. However, he does not see being in the minority party as a hindrance.
“Anyone in the Capitol is as influential as they want to be,” Sparks said. “There’s 149 of us up there, and if you don’t insert yourself in the policy dialogue, no one is going to come to your office looking for your opinion.”
Sparks is a thoughtful decision-maker who says he prefers to mull things over rather than react with sound bites for the media as things are unfolding.
But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have opinions. His thoughts on the sacred duty of maintaining the state Capitol building are potent.
“The people in charge are acting like slumlords,” Sparks said. “They want all the benefit without any investment costs. If’ you’re going to run the state like a business, you understand you have to invest in the business.
“We are starting another year of orange barriers circling the Capitol because it is not safe to walk through the front doors,” he said. “This is what limited government looks like taken to the extreme.”
The Capitol is more than just a pretty building, Sparks said.
“Our state Capitol building is about 100 years old and it is in dire need of ongoing maintenance,” he said. “The Capitol is not just a ceremonial building — it is a working office building.”
Sparks said he has been fortunate in his committee assignments. He serves on Military and Veterans Affairs, Finance, Rules, Insurance and Education Policy committees and the Education Subcommittee on appropriations.
“I have some of the best committee assignments at the Capitol,” he said. “I have been very fortunate in my tenure in the Senate as far as being at the table when policy issues affecting District 16 as well as the state are under consideration.”
Sparks said some important issues are coming to the forefront this legislative session, and he’s happy to be part of the discussions and decision-making.
“This year, I’ve been named the vice chair of the Senate Insurance Committee because in the past few years, I’ve inserted myself into the insurance issues at the Capitol, and now I’m part of that dialogue.”
New senator Rob Standridge, R-Norman, recently had a bill move out of committee. The bill deals with compounding pharmacies, an area in which Standridge has professional expertise.
Sparks said he is looking to build a relationship with Standridge as he has with Norman’s state House members Emily Virgin, D-Norman, and Scott Martin, R-Norman.
“I think the Senate membership looks to each new leader to see what their life experience and expertise might be,” Sparks said.
Sparks has some bills of his own in the areas of education and veterans affairs that are advancing.
Senate Bill 423 will allow Oklahoma high school graduates to qualify for in-state tuition, even if they briefly moved away. SB 423 has passed out of committee and is on the Senate floor.
“We should want those people who are coming back home to advance their education,” he said.
Sparks also wants to close a loophole that will exempt veterans who are 100 percent disabled from paying annual mobile home taxes when those manufactured homes are on rental property, such as in a trailer park. Current Oklahoma law exempts veterans with 100 percent disability from property taxes.
Another bill, SB 891, would allow universities to go after boosters who illegally pay players and cause the schools to be penalized. Under the proposed measure, universities could take the offending boosters to civil court to recoup money lost because of the penalties incurred as a result of those illegal activities.
Sparks said the three biggest issues this session are the workers’ compensation bill, Medicaid expansion and the Capitol’s maintenance.
Bills proposing workers’ compensation reform are on the floor right now.
“We are at a point where the added expense of the system is in the medical reimbursement rates. The new language has just been released and so we’re looking at the proposed bills,” he said.
He does not support the move to an administrative system for workers’ comp.
“There are situations where you have reasonable disagreements regarding the facts or the law, and both the employer and the employee should have the right to representation to urge their positions,” Sparks said. “If you go to an administrative system, you’re still going to have someone who’s appointed making decisions just like the judges do now, but your ability to participate in the resolution will be limited.
“None of the proposals we’ve seen so far reduce expenses by reducing administrative costs,” he said. “Instead, all of the cost savings result from reduced worker benefits for health care, lost income and loss of future earning capacity. None of the plans that have been introduced to date show a savings on the administrative-cost side.”
However, Sparks agrees that the system needs reform.
“No amount of fraud or abuse is acceptable,” he said. “We should always work hard to eliminate fraud and abuse from any system.”