While many voters content themselves after an election with the next day's news coverage to see the results of their participation at the polls, the true results, however, are seen months later when the election winners go to work to shape public policy.
Constituents might know what to expect from experienced lawmakers, but the latest election cycle sent a host of newcomers from the Tulsa area to their first terms at the state Capitol, and they've just finished hammering out their agendas and submitted legislation (Jan. 18 was the Legislature's bill filing deadline), reading for the start of a new session this month.
Freshman state lawmakers from the Tulsa area are Sen. Bill Brown and Reps. David Derby, Fred Jordan, Mark McCullough, Eric Proctor and Weldon Watson.
Initiates in the state Senate and House of Representatives often learn the ropes by carrying measures previously written by senior lawmakers, but they often have concrete ideas of their own for what they hope to accomplish.
Proctor, for instance, has big plans for Oklahoma's minimum wage, illegal immigration problem and public school employees, among other areas his proposed legislation would address.
While the high volume of new blood at the state Capitol is due in large part to term limits, the 24-year-old Democrat from Tulsa owes nothing to an open seat for his election. Proctor defeated eight-year veteran Rep. Mark Liotta, R-Tulsa, for representation of House District 77.
In an election cycle that saw Republicans retain power in the House and gain a historic 24-24 balance of power in a previously Democrat-controlled Senate, Proctor is the only Democrat from the Tulsa area elected to the state Legislature and one of only two to elbow-out an incumbent.
As anyone with any knowledge of politics knows, beating an incumbent under any circumstances is difficult and unlikely, so Proctor's defeat of so formidable an opponent came as a shock to many political watchers.
Liotta, former chairman of the committee that oversees transportation funding in the state, he (along with his counterpart across the Capitol rotunda, Sen. Frank Shurden, D-Henryetta) was a driving force behind the passage last session of what Oklahoma Department of Transportation Director Gary Ridley called "the most significant funding mechanism for the infrastructure in our state's history, and that's putting it lightly."
The new law requires that all gasoline and diesel tax revenue be directed to the State Transportation Fund instead of to General Revenue, which is expected to result in a continued increase in funding for state and county roads and bridges until 2010, at which point it will level out at $85 million per year for counties and $277.2 million for the state.
"This will change forever how we fund transportation," said an almost giddy Ridley shortly after the bill's passage during last year's special session.
Months later, upon learning of the election outcome, Liotta attributed his defeat to a lack of media coverage of the new funding for roads and bridges and to a low voter turnout from that 37 percent of his district which is made up of Republicans.
"I'm certainly disappointed but not surprised," he said. "Republicans didn't have a lot to go vote for-- Istook wasn't very well-known, there was no (U.S.) Senate race and the congressional race was already decided."
Proctor, though, said he won the race because his message and agenda resonated with voters-- a message he communicated on the doorsteps of thousands of his constituents over the course of the election after wrapping up from his daily duties of teaching high school students about history and government.
Now, topping the teacher-turned-lawmaker's agenda for the session to come is a measure that would tie Oklahoma's minimum wage to the national inflation rate. "It would basically make sure buying power stays the same," he explained. "Right now, it's at the lowest it's been since 1955."
Proctor is also advancing a bill that would give free in-state college tuition to the children of fallen Oklahoma servicemen and women.
He is also using his newfound legislative power to address a problem he came across as a high school teacher: "Support personnel for public schools have had one 50-cent raise since 1982," he said. Proctor is filing a bill that would give school counselors, nurses, janitors and all other support personnel a 75-cent raise.
Proctor is also advancing two resolutions, which are not legally binding but would convey the state Legislature's official position on relevant matters if passed. The first would request that the Tulsa Airport Authority use money already in place to provide soundproof windows and housing for neighborhoods around the airport.
The second resolution would ask the state's congressional delegation to request from the federal government an additional 25 immigration officers to the handful currently assigned to Oklahoma. "We're increasingly becoming a safe-harbor state for illegal immigration," said Proctor about the shortage of manpower for immigration enforcement in Oklahoma.
Another newcomer is Republican Rep. David Derby from Owasso. He replaces recently elected Tulsa County Commissioner John Smaligo for representation of House District 74. The 30-year-old fledgling lawmaker said he hopes to be a force for education reform in Oklahoma and, as one of the first steps to that end, Derby plans to advance a proposal to end tenure for teachers in the state.
"That way we have more control at the school district and superintendent levels to hire and fire," he explained. "This will give power back to the parents, school districts and principals" with the goal of ensuring more accountability for teachers, he said.
Derby, whose wife is a teacher, said he consulted with her as well as with other educators about his proposal, and all support it.
Teachers would still be protected from unfair treatment and arbitrary job termination, Derby said, because current due process laws would remain in place if his proposal becomes law. However, another provision of his measure would be the addition of one more level of review for teachers.
Teachers are currently reviewed once a year, but his law would require it twice annually. That way, he said, teachers' job performances would be well-documented to protect them against being arbitrarily fired, and administrators would have ample documentation to justify terminating a teacher if his or her performance is not up to par.
Another measure Derby said he intends to file is one that he hopes will help to crack-down on identity theft. It would authorize law enforcement officers to confiscate scanners and copiers and other devices used for producing fake IDs.
He has been appointed to serve on the House Subcommittee on the Elderly, among other legislative panels, and said his measure would provide more security for the elderly, "who are the ones usually targeted for identity theft." He said the measure comes at the request of members of the Tulsa Police Department's fraud division.
Derby is himself a member of the Tulsa Police Department, working as a forensic chemist when he's not serving at the state Capitol. As such, he is putting his expertise to use in the Legislature by filing a bill to tweak the state's drug laws that specify crime lab procedures for analyzing certain controlled substances.
The bill is packed with words like "propoxyphene" and other tongue-twisters that likely wouldn't be found in the lexicons of the general reader (nor of a certain reporter), and its effects would not be directly seen by his constituents, but he put it in a nutshell by explaining that it would "save money and time with criminal lab scenarios" by streamlining an unnecessary procedural requirement.
Like many GOP lawmakers, one of Derby's main stated goals for the upcoming session is to make the Sooner state a more business-friendly environment by means of lawsuit and workers' compensation reforms. He said he had two such measures in the works to file this session, but has since decided to drop them in favor of "phenomenal" proposals by fellow freshman Republican, Rep. Mark McCullough from Sapulpa.
"Mark McCullough has a couple of ideas for tort reform and workers' comp reform that are far better than what I could come up with," said Derby.
McCullough replaces Sen. Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, for representation of House District 30 after he stepped down to campaign for his current office. McCullough was a medical sales representative before quitting to devote his time to serving his district, and was a government lawyer prior to that.
One of the proposals about which Derby spoke so glowingly is a bill that would reform what McCullough called an "ancient and outdated method" of attorneys collecting exorbitant contingency fees for winning personal injury cases, which he points to as a major contributing factor in Oklahoma's litigious legal climate.
"There is almost no other profession where the ethics rules allow professionals to have a direct financial stake in the performance of their jobs," said McCullough. "If a surgeon successfully removes a spleen, he gets paid the same as he would if the operation hadn't been successful," he said.
Lawyers typically collect a percentage of the monetary awards won for their clients, which is sometimes disproportionate to the amount of work invested in a case, McCullough explained. His plan is to make attorneys accountable to the courts for the number of billable hours they spend working on a case, and limiting contingency fees to what they can claim for those hours.
McCullough's contingency fee reform plan would include the creation of a database of the average amount of hours worked for different kinds of personal injury cases, and basing contingency fee amounts on that hour schedule. Attorneys would have the option, however, of petitioning for an evidentiary hearing if they go beyond the schedule table, he said.
His proposal "could be fundamental in reforming personal injury law," McCullough said, but he also knows it won't pass without a fight. "I don't expect anybody from the trial bar to get on board with this-- they perceive that it will cut into their profits and it makes for transparency in how they get paid," he said.
The other idea with which McCullough wowed his new colleague would essentially overhaul Oklahoma's workers' compensation system. "This is very ambitious," he said. "It would repeal Title 85."
That law is the portion of Oklahoma statutes that governs the Workers' Compensation Court.
The current system, he explained, is an "adversarial proceeding" in which "there is a perverse incentive to exaggerate injuries" on the part of the plaintiff and to understate them on the part of the defendant, and a judge has to decide between the two parties and issue a ruling that often involves plaintiffs waiving future benefits in exchange for a check.
"Most other states don't sue each other over workplace injuries---they handle it administratively," said McCullough.
Accordingly, his reform would turn workers' compensation into an administrative rather than adversarial proceeding and place the responsibility for injury assessment with an independent body of medical professionals "with no dog in the hunt," rather than with a judge with no medical training who must decide between two competing interests.
"This may create an additional level of bureaucracy, but that's the lesser of two evils," he said. "Everybody I talk to who's a business owner tells me how difficult (the current system) is."
(Shortly after this interview, however, McCullough, after extensive discussions with House Republican leaders, decided not to run his workers' compensation reform bill this session.)
His efforts on it this year, he said, will be limited to requesting an interim study on the matter and to garnering bi-partisan support for it to increase his chances for success in 2008.
Rep. Fred Jordan is another Tulsan new to the state Legislature, having beaten three other Republicans in the race to replace term-limited Rep. Fred Perry for representation of House District 69.
Jordan owns his own homebuilding business and is a Marine Corps veteran, having served as an officer and a judge advocate.
Jordan kept his military roots in mind when he prepared his agenda for the upcoming session. One of his proposals will be to exempt all Oklahomans on active military duty from the state income tax. "A lot of states already do that, and this would be an extra benefit and 'thank you' for serving," he said. Currently, Oklahomans who are serving are exempted from their first $1,500 a year.
Another measure on Jordan's plate is one that will "further define what an 'ATV' actually is in the state of Oklahoma," he said. A stricter definition of what legally constitutes an all-terrain vehicle, he explained, would be to make sure ATVs in the state are titled.
Jordan said the measure would have the benefit of giving the state income from titling fees as well as protecting consumers by enabling the state to track ATVs in the event of a theft.
Also, Jordan said his measure would correct current laws that drive consumers to other states. ATV enthusiasts typically escape Oklahoma's sales tax by going to Arkansas to buy them, then escape Arkansas' titling requirements when they bring them into the state, he explained.
Jordan said he is filing his measure at the request of the ATV industry.
He also plans to file a bill that would provide a tax credit for money spent on prosthetic limbs. Jordan said he's filing the measure at the request of a constituent.
While he naturally hopes for success in turning his proposals into laws, as a freshman lawmaker, however, Jordan said, "My main goal is to learn as much as I can and get the peoples' work done---I want people to know they can count on me to provide solid and steady conservative leadership and to be diligent to research and study every issue."
Rep. Weldon Watson, R-Tulsa, is another newcomer who is devoting the main efforts of his first session to learning how to govern. "My primary responsibility is to catch the wave and learn something," he said. "I'm eager to get immersed in the lawmaking process and learn how we function as a state."
Watson succeeds term-limited Republican Rep. Chris Hastings for representation of House District 79.
Watson retired from a 30-year career in the oil and gas industry just before embarking on his campaign for public office. Prior to that, he was a reporter on state and municipal government back when news providers "covered the Capitol like a blanket," he said.
In the interest of learning the ropes, Watson is carrying several measures this session that were previously written by senior lawmakers, some of which are related to his area of expertise---energy.
However, he was struck with an idea of his own soon after orientation. All members of the state Legislature, he learned, are required to take the state of Oklahoma's health insurance, so he plans to file legislation that would allow them to opt out of it.
"It's foolish---this is supposed to be part time," said Watson of the requirement. "I can't imagine it would hurt state employees from the few people who want to stay on their own insurance."
While Watson is devoting his energies this session to his training as a lawmaker, he said he plans to use his life skills and business experience during his ensuing career to help improve the state's transportation infrastructure, education system and economy and to work to lower taxes.
Sen. Bill Brown, R-Broken Arrow, is the only freshman in the Senate from the Tulsa area. He replaces Sen. Scott Pruitt for representation of Senate District 36, who stepped down to run for the state's lieutenant governor position but lost the Republican nomination to former House Speaker Todd Hiett, R-Kellyville.
In addition to his newly-won status as a state senator, Brown also owns his own insurance business as well as the Lake Eufala Marina.
At the time this piece was written, the budding senator said he is carrying several items related to education that were written by senior lawmakers but, according to the guidance of Senate GOP leadership, he said he is reluctant to divulge the specific provisions before language is finalized and the bills are filed.
One measure that he would disclose, though, is a bill of his own design that would get the same health insurance benefits for the state's public school employees as other state employees enjoy. "The state doesn't provide any benefits for the dependents of school employees, but it pays for up to 75 percent of the benefits of other state employees' dependents," said Brown.
For ensuing sessions of his career in the Senate, though, Brown's ambitions are far broader. "I'm always interested in lowering taxes," he said. "A lot of people talk about how poor we are as a state, but I feel like the state of Oklahoma is not a poor state-- it's just been poorly managed."
Many state agencies are bloated with administration costs that are disproportionate to other areas of business, he explained, and that zero-based budgeting is the answer.
Brown said he also plans to support the renewed efforts this session of Sen. Randy Brogdon, R-Owasso, to pass a "taxpayer bill of rights," which would limit the state government's growth to the rate of inflation.
"I really believe TABOR will work if written correctly," said Brown. "Colorado has flourished over the last 15 years until September 11 hit, and people forget how damaging that was everywhere to the economy."
Brown said Republican's tie for power with Democrats in the Senate makes him hopeful for the success of GOP efforts to enact proposals like TABOR and zero-based budgeting.
"It's an exciting time-- it's the first time in history that Republicans have any power in the Senate," he said.
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