Capitol Conversations: Representative Terry O’Donnell

by Jacob Tiller

State Representative Terry O’Donnell, R-Catoosa, didn’t start out life planning to run for office, but since 2013 he’s been representing the people of House District 23. This session O’Donnell also serves in a leadership role as Speaker Pro Tempore of the House.

Representative O’Donnell is an attorney by trade. He also volunteered with the City of Catoosa Planning Commission and Zoning Board for a decade. When the District 23 seat opened up, he said people in Catoosa encouraged him to run.

“When part of your community comes and, you know, endorses you and asks you to run; that was strong. That was very powerful to me. And so that’s why I decided to run for state representative,” O’Donnell said.

One of O’Donnell’s biggest goals for this legislative session is the passage of House Bill 2030.  

“It would require high school students to take the history and civics portion of the naturalization test that is given to people coming from other countries that are not US citizens to become citizens…it encourages a more robust study of documents like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Federalist Papers…it will lead to a more thorough understanding of our nation and our history,” O’Donnell said.

House Bill 2030 passed the full House of Representatives and is currently under consideration in the State Senate.

Representative O’Donnell believes strongly in holding on to democracy.

“Democracy is a beautiful thing, you can hold on to democracy as long as you have democracy. But then when you change (that)…then your democracy ceases to exist. And it will be very difficult to regain that. I just don’t think people have an appreciation of how our system works and the beauty of our system”

Another bill O’Donnell is supporting this year is House Bill 2085, which would require the national motto “In God We Trust” be displayed on all of the government buildings in the state.

“I really liked the idea because our national motto in God We Trust has been a motto since the 50s…it is a motto that is both reassuring and unifying of our people. And it’s been voted on several times federally and both Democrats and Republicans agree to that motto. So I think we’re at a point in our history where we could really use some things to unify our country. So I thought it was a great idea and that’s why I supported that bill and signed on as an author.”

O’Donnell also said he has supported teacher pay raises in the past and said while state funding may not dramatically increase this year, because of the new COVID-19 relief package, schools will be receiving more money. However, he said the way teacher pay raises are handed out should be carefully considered.

“I think most teachers should receive a pay raise. I think that we should come up with a formula for merit based pay raises. I don’t think we do enough to reward excellence in the classroom if the system promotes kind of a social promotion of raises. But I think teaching is very, very important. It’s a central function of government and we need to have good teachers. But I don’t know that everybody needs to just be promoted based on their years of service.”

In the past Representative O’Donnell has worked on issues such as criminal justice reform. During the previous administration, O’Donnell was a chief co-sponsor of a reform package that was approved by then Governor Mary Fallin.

“Part of the attraction to me for the criminal justice reform was that we were going to get people out of jail and we were going to have more robust chemical dependency intervention programs,” O’Donnell said. “We were also going to invest the savings into mental health from my standpoint, as a legislature. We have about four thousand fewer people in jail right now than we did when I started.”

O’Donnell said the state has not yet seen the projected savings from the criminal justice reform measures, but he believes it is just a matter of time before the reforms pay for themselves.

“We really need the money to catch up so that we can invest some of that money into the addiction programs and the mental health programs where I would say we’re halfway there. We’ve done the part about getting people out of jail. Now we need to do the other half.”

One issue that went unaddressed by the legislature this year was any new rules or regulations surrounding police reform in the wake of protests and riots around the country and in Oklahoma.  O’Donnell said he believes the legislature’s authority to act is limited. However, he said lawmakers have taken steps to address some issues with policing.

“We have written some bills. I’ve got a bill this year that requires the release of videotape, it involves interaction between the police and the public…We set requirements for CLEET training, which is the training that law enforcement goes through to to pay for the safe practice and handling of firearms.”

This past year has been challenging for Oklahoma due to the pandemic, but O’Donnell said the fact more than 25% of Oklahomans have already been vaccinated is a huge step forward. This week, Oklahoma moved into its Phase 4 vaccination plan which means any adult can get a vaccine.

Representative O’Donnell has a bachelor’s degree in political science from his time at Baylor University. If you’re interested in running for public office, he suggested volunteering with a campaign for a candidate you like and developing relationships with other people. 

He also suggested participating in the “Oklahoma House of Representatives High School Page Program” that lets you visit the Capitol and learn what representatives work on inside the House chamber.

Representative O’Donnell is considering making his final reelection bid in 2022.

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