The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

June 2, 2013

Legislators seek solution for NORCE

By Robert Barron, Staff Writer
Enid News & Eagle

ENID, Okla. — The Oklahoma Legislature accomplished some important goals this year, but the fate of Northern Oklahoma Resource Center in Enid is unchanged.

Of importance to Enid is the fate of NORCE, which, along with Southern Oklahoma Resource Center in Pauls Valley, is scheduled to be closed. The state is in the process of finding new homes for the residents of those facilities, but the search is not going well, said Sen. Patrick Anderson, R-Enid.

“We will continue to keep the NORCE discussion going. Nothing legislatively happened to change it,” he said.

However, the state is having a difficult time finding homes for the residents of SORC. That facility is scheduled to close in 10 months, and if all the residents are not housed by that time, Anderson thinks they will come to NORCE.

“I’m still optimistic we will find a way to keep operating,” Anderson said.

In addition, there will be plenty of opportunities to introduce NORCE legislation that went nowhere in the Legislature this session. Anderson said there already has been lots of discussion about it, and he expects more during the summer and fall preceding the start of the 2014 session.

“Hopefully, we will find a way to keep it operating for years to come,” he said.

Some employees have left the facility, but there still are at least 250 remaining, Anderson said. The resident population also remains about the same, he said.

Another reason for optimism is Greer Center, which has beds for 60. Greer Center is a private business and is not scheduled to close.

“That makes me optimistic the facilities will stay around and there may be an opportunity to provide spaces for clients of NORCE on that campus,” Anderson said.

The NORCE fight has been one of the toughest of his political career, Anderson said. It has been frustrating because of the difficulty in communicating with Gov. Mary Fallin’s office, but he hopes relations will improve and a way will be found to keep the facility functioning.

The state did not make much progress in dealing with health care this session either, Anderson said. The Obama administration notified the state it will not allow the Insure Oklahoma plan beyond December.

Insure Oklahoma is a plan where small employers pay part of the cost of health care, and the state and federal government also pay a part. Anderson said the federal government wants to force the state to implement the national health care plan.

“What will happen in regard to Insure Oklahoma (is) 9,000 people will not have insurance after Jan. 1. That’s a good number of people,” he said.

Other plans are being discussed and will continue to be talked about during the summer. There is a possibility the Legislature may be called into special session to deal with health care issues, Anderson said.

The state did increase funding for mental health, Sooner Care and Medicaid programs, but nothing has been done to improve health care or provide extended coverage, he said.

As a result of the Moore tornado, the last week of the session was focused on what really is important, Anderson said. During that time, the state agreed to take $45 million out of the rainy day fund and set it aside for emergency management issues. The funds will go to communities impacted by tornadoes.

State Rep. Mike Jackson, R-Enid, said he is hopeful progress still can be made on NORCE. Currently, the center for the developmentally disabled is in the same situation it was when the session started. A House interim study is being held this summer to look at the transition plan, as well as other unanswered questions. The study may highlight deficiencies in the Department of Human Services plan.

“The opportunity for legislation is still there. NORCE doesn’t close until 2015, and there are still opportunities for legislation next session,” Jackson said. “‘Optimistic’ may not be the right word. ‘Hopeful’ is better,” he said.

There is room for alterations to the plan. Jackson said they will not be easy, but still are possible.

“There is too much political wind against us — it makes it more difficult. The roadblock is the department’s inability to move individuals out in the timeline they set. It will cause problems and opens the door back up, which is why I’m still hopeful,” Jackson said.

The NORCE situation has been one of the most difficult scraps he has had in his political career, Jackson said. He has always been a supporter of Fallin, but when the NORCE decision was made, it put Jackson and Fallin at heavy odds, he said.  Also, the role played by the private providers made it more difficult, as well as the method of closing the facilities, he said.

“The way the whole situation was done was not the best way of going about closing the facilities. I think they were trying to do it in a way that was less political, but it ended up being more so,” Jackson said.

Health care is another unresolved issue. At the end of the session, a plan to take the $56 million the state already is putting into health care and use it to fund the $9,000 people that will be left without insurance when Insure Oklahoma goes away was too hasty, Jackson said.

Jackson said the Insure Oklahoma program was well thought out when it was implemented and the solution to that program also should be thought through. Jackson prefers what he termed a “more measured approach.”

The reform of workers’ compensation was a major accomplishment this session and equals the right-to-work vote. The system went to administrative, rather than adversarial, which is one of the first things Jackson talked about when he initially ran for the Oklahoma House.

The Legislature also passed some protections for Oklahoma energy companies from Federal Energy Regulations Commission rules that could harm those industries. In the area of water, he said important rules were passed in changing the way the Oklahoma Water Resources Board membership is configured. The board has been set up on a population basis since its inception, and after this year, it will go to a regional concept, he said. That approach will  include approach, population and usage, as well as resources available.

“It gives each region more say in how its water is used. That’s an important thing we will see (is) water continue to be at the top of discussions,” Jackson said.

State Rep. John Enns, R-Enid, thinks the Legislature set out to accomplish more than it did. It did approve tax cuts and workers’ compensation reform.

“Those two things are pretty big deals,” Enns said. “But we didn’t get a pay raise for the troopers, or for Department of Corrections employees, and locally, we still haven’t been able to keep NORCE open,” Enns said.

Enns said with $280 million more income this year, those things should have been done. He is not confident about NORCE, either. Legislation by NORCE and SORC supporters was not heard by the Legislature last year and Enns said each year things will be more difficult.

“Anything that happens to NORCE will have to come from the governor,” Enns said.

Enns had an appointment to meet with Fallin to discuss NORCE and some other issues before the tornadoes struck, but it was postponed. He hopes to have the discussion this summer.

Health care legislation still is unresolved and Enns does not trust the federal government. He fears if the Legislature goes with the federal program, Washington will underfund it, then pull out in a few years, leaving the state holding the bag.