POSTED ON JANUARY 9, 2008:
Back in Session
Legislators have big plans for 2008
Another session of the state Legislature is about to commence, and the Governor and House and Senate leaders are due to formally announce their agendas any day now, but a few Capitol insiders gave UTW a sneak peak at what's to come.
It looks like Oklahoma's crumbling bridges and overcrowded prisons are going to be top priorities this year, along with some fine tuning of last year's monumental immigration reform legislation, as well as the usual yearly rituals of debate over tort reform, tax cuts and teachers' pay, with some new discussions thrown into the mix about the length of the school year and revamping (or even doing away with) some state agencies.
Sen. Todd Lamb, R-Edmond, who chairs the Senate Republican caucus, said transportation, corrections and education are tied as top priorities for the Senate GOP.
"I think we all know our roads and bridges are in a state of disrepair," he said.
"We still have a significant backlog of repairs to make," concurred Rep. John Wright, R-Broken Arrow, who chairs the House Republican caucus.
In 2006, the Legislature passed what the state Department of Transportation Director Gary Ridley called "the most significant funding mechanism for the infrastructure in our state's history," which requires that transportation funding increase by $50 million each year until it levels out at $200 million, as long as the state's economy grows by at least three percent each year. If it doesn't, roads only get a $17.5 million increase.
Last year, the state's economy didn't do as well as hoped, so the roads only got that bare minimum increase, which has lawmakers on both sides of the aisle talking about giving that three percent growth rate condition the boot.
"We need to remove the trigger," said Sen. Kenneth Corn, D-Poteau, who chairs the Senate Democrat caucus.
He was reluctant to show too many of the Senate Democrats' cards before leaders make official announcements of their 2008 agendas (ditto for Wright and Lamb about their respective caucus' plans), but Corn said he's filed a bill to remove that condition, and it looks like he won't get any resistance from Republicans.
House Speaker Lance Cargill, R-Harrah, recently made comments about similar intentions, which Wright reiterated during his interview with UTW.
Corn also predicted some smooth political sailing regarding implementing recommendations from the recently concluded Department of Corrections audit.
"I think what you'll see is a bi-partisan effort to fund corrections and address problems with space in Oklahoma's prisons," he said.
Wright said House Republicans will be "gleaning the audit for recommendations, to make sure the taxpayers are getting the most bang for their buck" in the weeks to come.
Lamb anticipated that implementing recommendations from the audit will end the historic lack of funding for DOC that's necessitated the agency's usual yearly mid-session ritual of supplicating the Legislature for supplemental appropriations.
While they're apparently agreed, so far, on what to do about transportation and corrections, it looks like education, as it often is, will be the subject over which Republicans and Democrats stop holding hands and start clenching fists this year.
"The Speaker's concern and desire is to enhance standards, ensure accountability and reward excellence in Oklahoma schools," said Wright when asked about House Republicans' plans for education this year.
Presumably not wanting to speak for Cargill, Wright didn't mention "merit pay" specifically, but his language is no doubt familiar to anyone who's paid attention to the Speaker's past arguments for the proposal.
Meanwhile, Senate Democrats will be trying to expand common education from K-12 to K-14.
"Business leaders I've talked to have told me they have a difficult time finding a qualified workforce, and a high school diploma no longer meets the expectations of employers," said Corn in explanation of a bill he's filed to expand state-funded common education to include two years of college "for every student who qualifies."
He said 20 other Senate Democrats have signed on as co-authors of the proposal.
While Corn and other members of the Senate are working to lengthen the number of years students spend in school, there will no doubt be debate and discussion of state Superintendent Sandy Garrett's proposal that the school year be lengthened from 175 to 190 days, and the school day increased from six to seven hours.
And, of course, it wouldn't be a session of the Oklahoma Legislature if there weren't heated debate and compelling drama over tort reform.
Last year, Capitol watchers likely remember, there was much rending of garments and gnashing of teeth among Republicans when Gov. Brad Henry vetoed a massive tort reform package they'd sent across his desk.
Lamb and Wright have both indicated their caucus' plans to give it another go this year, though.
"Gov. Henry asked for Texas-plus-sized tort reform; he got it, and he vetoed it," said Lamb.
"What forms the cornerstone of economic development in non-urban areas is available health care, and that depends on malpractice rates," said Wright, noting that malpractice insurance costs more in Oklahoma than in California.
"My father was a neurosurgeon in Oklahoma in the '70s, and he left his practice because he was paying $50,000 a year for malpractice insurance," he added.
Neither Wright nor Lamb gave any indication that this year's proposed tort reform package would be any different than last year's, but were nonetheless hopeful for a different outcome from the Governor's office.
"If he understands the need for tort reform in Oklahoma, he'll sign it," said Wright.
Corn, though, disagreed.
"Last year, it basically gave the corporations the ability to not be held responsible for their actions, and the Democrats oppose that," he said.
"We can't give people complete immunity," he added.
Of course, haggling over the tax structure is another obvious expectation for the session to come, but lowered projections for economic growth might put a new spin on the subject.
As a result of legislation from previous years, the state's income tax rate dropped to 5.5 percent this month, Wright pointed out, and the rate is due to be lowered to 5.25 percent by 2010. But he said House Republicans are hoping to accelerate that to occur in 2009, depending on the rate of the state economy's growth.
If recent projections are any indication, though, that isn't likely to happen.
About a week prior to Wright's comments, the Governor and other state leaders estimated that 2008 would see only $32 million in new revenue for the state, and that would only grow by half a percentage point in 2009.
Wright, though, said the estimate was only a short-term projection, and that the long-term effects of Republicans' tax cuts will be to stimulate the economy.
By 2009 or 2010, though, Oklahoma taxpayers might just have a smaller government to support anyway.
Wright said another subject to be under considerable discussion this year will be "looking at government as a whole."
He said House Republicans will be considering the findings of an interim study conducted last year, examining the "large number of agencies, boards and commissions" comprising the state government for streamlining or consolidation.
And, of course, the subject of immigration reform didn't go away with the dismissal of the CONLAMIC's lawsuit.
Rep. Randy Terrill, R-Moore, author of last year's uber-controversial immigration reform legislation, HB 1804, has announced plans to file what he calls "Son of HB 1804," which would expand last year's new law to include making English the official language of the state, allowing law enforcement authorities to seize assets used in the transport or harboring of illegal immigrants, and to have the state stop issuing birth certificates for the children of illegal immigrants.
Wright seemed to downplay a possible "Son of HB 1804," but said efforts will focus on fine-tuning last year's legislation.
"What will be examined are the tools for proper enforcement of HB 1804," he said.
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