The corporate hammerlock on the Oklahoma Legislature is rarely broken.
Think lawmakers should revisit hundreds of millions of dollars in questionable business tax breaks, especially at a time when meager state revenues are forcing draconian cuts in state services? Won't be happening this session.
Think lawmakers should force insurers to tap record profits to cover treatment for autistic children, tossing a lifeline to families who faithfully paid their premiums only to be told "tough luck" when they needed help the most? Don't hold your breath.
Think lawmakers should end the revolving door that allows elected officials to be taxpayer-supported public servants one day and fat-cat lobbyists the next? Forget about it.
As breathtakingly venal as the legislative process can be, every so often good public policy merges with good politics to trump the powers-that-be.
Just such a serendipitous moment occurred last week for state Rep. Mike Brown, the House minority floor leader.
Brown and Sen. Jim Wilson, both Tahlequah Democrats, are working together on Senate Bill 1251 that would prevent health insurers from using a history of domestic violence as a reason to deny coverage.
Earlier this session, the measure sailed through the state Senate -- unanimously, in fact. But it slammed into a roadblock in the House: Rep. Dan Sullivan, R-Tulsa, flexed his power as chairman of the Economic Development and Financial Services Committee to deny it a hearing.
Brown, a plain-spoken grandfather and sign company owner, did what most any elected official who wants to rally public opinion would do: He issued a news release.
"Once again," the statement quoted him as saying, "the leadership of the Republican Party in the Oklahoma House of Representatives has shown that it holds the interests of insurance companies above the well-being of Oklahoma citizens.
"Without this bill, someone who was the victim of abuse years ago could find themselves being denied health insurance coverage now. Anyone who believes it is time to put an end to abusive practices by insurance companies should be outraged by the refusal of Rep. Sullivan to allow a hearing on the bill."
The next morning, Brown was having coffee in the Capitol basement. Sullivan stopped by and said he would allow the bill to be heard, after all. The measure was approved 12-2 in committee and now will be considered by the full House.
Sullivan didn't acquiesce quietly, upbraiding Brown for launching a personal attack. Brown insists he wasn't taking aim at Sullivan specifically, but rather at the House Republican leadership, whose policies routinely favor big insurance.
Sullivan also defended his initial decision not to hear the bill by saying he touched base with the insurance industry -- now there's an impartial source! -- and the state Insurance Department but found no evidence of a problem.
Heaven forbid the Legislature would ever offer a solution to a problem that didn't exist. There is no credible evidence of a lawsuit epidemic in Oklahoma -- or of runaway, jackpot juries slamming businesses with astronomical awards -- but that hasn't stopped Sullivan and Co. from introducing bill after bill to prevent it.
Call it Straw Man 101, and it's done for political effect -- to let your political benefactors know you're hard at work for them.
Interestingly, though, more than 40 states already have passed laws forbidding insurance companies from citing a history of domestic abuse as a pre-existing condition. And the new federal health care act includes a provision that eliminates pre-existing conditions altogether, though it doesn't take effect until 2014.
In the meantime, unless the Legislature enacts the prohibition, Oklahomans face the possibility of being victimized twice -- first when battered by a spouse, then again if denied health coverage because of it. How fair is that?
Sullivan's umbrage over the affair is quite delicious. He's hardly the Legislature's most sympathetic figure, especially when it comes to the rights of rank-and-file Oklahomans. He's a corporate attorney who constantly bleats about tort and workers' compensation reform and frivolous lawsuits. Let me interpret those euphemisms for you: His No. 1 goal is to protect the corporate bottom line. If that means padlocking the courthouse to injured or aggrieved individuals, so be it.
Among his more infamous acts in defense of the corporate gods: He killed Nick's Law, the proposal that would have required insurance companies to cover autism treatment for children.
Still, it's hard to imagine that any corporation that gives one whit about its community standing or its civic responsibility would dare invoke domestic violence as a Scarlet Letter-esque, pre-existing condition.
Perhaps this entire dust-up is just another sign that the Golden Rule doesn't mean what it once did. Has Do unto others as you would have them do unto you given way to Those who have the gold make the rules?
There is no better evidence that the legislative leadership all-too-often embraces the latter version than its decision to derail Senate Bill 847, (check out "Lady with the Spinning Head" at urbantulsa.com).
The measure, by Sen. Debbe Leftwich, D-Oklahoma City, and Rep. Gary Banz, R-Midwest City, would have prevented ex-lawmakers, state officers (such as governor, attorney general and insurance commissioner) and state employees from becoming paid lobbyists for two years after they leave office -- a cooling-off period modeled after a congressional plan enacted several years ago.
Leftwich said nearly 40 ex-lawmakers, including a former House Speaker and two former Senate president pro tempores, are among the legion of lobbyists that swarm the Capitol daily -- affording deep-pocketed special interests a distinct advantage over rank-and-file Oklahomans when it comes to getting a legislator's ear.
In five previous sessions, Leftwich's efforts to end the Revolving Door failed. This year, though, it passed the Senate by a 40-5 margin. When it was sent to the House nearly a month ago, it was assigned to the Rules Committee. And there it will die. Banz, a straight-shooting, former teacher, said he was told the measure won't be given a hearing.
Evidently, legislative leaders think the cooling-off period is too great an imposition on free-enterprise hiring practices. Surely this conviction isn't fueled by the fact that several of those leaders will be term-limited soon and in search of employment -- lucrative employment.
Why would they care that the Revolving Door fuels public cynicism about the cozy relationship between well-heeled special interests and lawmakers? Or that the public is troubled that legislators can reward their lobbying friends with votes one day and join their payroll the next? They're about to leave office, anyway.
And they sure do want to keep their options open.
-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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