The Oklahoma Senate

Week In Review
Monday, March 13 to Thursday, March 16, 2000

Monday, March 6

  • In a day of heavy floor activity, the full Senate worked through 75 pieces of legislation. Lawmakers are rushing to beat a March 16th deadline for passing all bills out of their house of origin. Any legislation that does not beat the deadline is dead for the session.

  • Oklahoma voters may get to decide whether they want to boost the state gasoline tax to help expand passenger rail service in Oklahoma. Under SJR 37 by Sen. Dave Herbert, the gas tax would be increased by one-cent for 10 years. The $18 million in anticipated revenue would be earmarked for passenger rail service. The Midwest City legislator was instrumental in establishing Oklahoma's only passenger rail link from Oklahoma City to Fort Worth and is trying to raise additional money to extend the service into northern Oklahoma, Tulsa and on to Kansas City. Sen. Herbert said by raising state revenue for rail service, Oklahoma would be able to leverage matching federal transportation dollars. The proposal, which was approved by the Senate on a 39-8 vote, must also be passed in a statewide vote.

  • Senators approved legislation laying the framework for a tobacco trust fund. SB 1404 by Sen. Stratton Taylor would established a board appointed by seven state officials to oversee the trust fund. The board would be a bipartisan body representing all regions of the state. Appointees would review proposals and make recommendations about how trust fund money should be invested or allocated. Currently, proceeds from the state's $2.3 billion are being deposited directly into the state general fund, but a number of state officials have advocated the creation of a special trust fund to hold a substantial share of the money.

  • Legislation that would punish Oklahomans who traffic in "date rape" drugs passed the full Senate. SB 1467 by Sen. Sam Helton would classify Gamma-Butyrolactone or GBL as a Schedule I controlled substance. GBL is a colorless, odorless, tasteless chemical that offenders slip into a victim's drink to render them unconscious.

  • Senators approved legislation designed to crack down on littering by sticking offenders with tougher penalties. SB 1455 by Sen. Frank Shurden would also increase the community service hours for littering, in addition to boosting fines from $200 to $5,000.

  • Legislation that would make it more difficult for state transportation officials to privatize highway maintenance projects was approved by the full Senate. SB 1117 by Sen. Gene Stipe would prohibit the Oklahoma Department of Transportation and the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority from soliciting or entering into agreements for maintenance of roads and highways which is currently being performed by state employees. Transportation officials came under fire last year when they began pursuing privatization projects before they had conducted a cost analysis to determine if such a change would save the state money.

  • After a three-hour debate, members of the State House defeated an attempt to abolish remedial courses at Oklahoma's two comprehensive universities. HB 1710 by Rep. Carolyn Coleman would have required students to take remedial courses at junior colleges, rather than at OU or OSU. The bill is similar to a proposal made by Gov. Keating in his executive budget for the coming fiscal year. Coleman argued that remedial classes are not the mission of the two major state universities, but opponents contended that it would unfairly penalize students who need a few remedial courses to brush up on difficult subject matter. Statistics indicate at least 40 percent of Oklahoma college students take at least one remedial course. The bill failed on a 49-50 vote.

  • The full House approved legislation that will expand a ban on smoking in the public schools. HB 2529 by Rep. Carolyn Coleman would require school officials to prohibit smoking from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. on school grounds and during any program established for students. Rep. Coleman said she did not want potential role models such as teachers and coaches smoking in front of students. Some argued that such decisions should be left to local school boards, but the bill passed 84-14.

  • House members also approved legislation designed to discourage medical research involving human fetuses. HB 2040 by Rep. John Wright would prohibit the selling or donation, or the performance of research or experimentation upon the remains of a fetus that had been aborted.

  • A bill that started out as legislation requiring health care plans to conduct internal reviews ended up as a patients' rights measure after being amended by House members. As amended, HB 2647 by Rep. Fred Morgan would allow participants to sue HMO's if all internal and external review options have been exhausted.
    Tuesday, March 7

  • Senators approved legislation that would outlaw "racial profiling" in Oklahoma. SB 1444 by Sen. Maxine Horner would prohibit the practice of law enforcement officers stopping or detaining people based solely on their race or ethnicity. The bill would make such an action a misdemeanor and require the law enforcement agency to take disciplinary action against the offending officer. The measure would also designate the Oklahoma Human Rights Commission as the agency that compiled complaint reports. Sen. Horner said statistics show that a disproportionate number of minorities are stopped by police officers simply because of the color of their skin. However, some legislators argued that a racial profiling law would restrict police officers in their performance of duty. The legislation passed 42-5.

  • The Senate defeated legislation that would have encouraged school districts to consolidate some of their administrative functions. SB 1544 by Sen. Carol Martin would have authorized mutual contracts between two or more school districts for personnel services. The Comanche Republican claimed that the bill would not force school districts to consolidate, but the legislation fell one vote short of the majority of 25 votes it needed to pass. The bill was kept alive on a motion to reconsider.

  • Senators approved legislation that would require the Oklahoma Film Office to broaden its horizons and begin helping another sector of the state entertainment industry. SB 1089 by Sen. Dave Herbert would change the office's name to the Oklahoma Film and Music Office and require it to assist the music industry.

  • Legislation that would make it easier for state employees to put away money for a college education was approved by the Senate. SB 1211 by Sen. Brad Henry would authorize voluntary payroll deduction for state employees for payments to college savings plan accounts. It would also specify that any such withdrawals would be exempt from taxable income.

  • Senators approved legislation that may ultimately be used to outline DNA testing guidelines for state law enforcement agencies and judicial authorities. SB 1381 by Sen. Dick Wilkerson would establish the Forensic Testing Act. The Atwood Democrat said he is currently working with the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System, district attorneys and the OSBI to reach an agreement on the legislation.

  • On a motion to reconsider, the State House reversed itself on legislation that would ban remedial courses at OU and OSU (see above). HB 1710 by Rep. Carolyn Coleman was approved on a 51- 46 vote Tuesday, one day after it had fallen one vote short of passage. It now goes to the Senate.

Wednesday, March 8

  • On a motion to reconsider, Senators approved legislation that would require more children to wear seatbelts. SB 891 by Sen. Ben Brown would require all children under 12 to buckle up, expanding current law which covers only children up to 5 years of age. The legislation was amended by Sen. Jeff Rabon to clarify that the requirement applied to the passenger compartments of vehicles, not the beds of pickup trucks. The bill passed 28-19.

  • The Senate approved legislation that would require district attorneys to make public records available on deferred prosecution deals they cut with accused offenders. Under SB 1451 by Sen. Brad Henry, district attorneys would be required to keep a list of all deferred prosecution agreements, including the names of the accused and the terms of their deal. The list would be open for public inspection. Currently, that information is not a part of the public record. The Oklahoma Press Association requested the legislation, claiming that the public deserved to know the details of agreements that district attorneys strike with lawbreakers.

  • Senators approved legislation that would freeze property taxes for 10 years. SB 1123 by Sen. Robert Kerr would also allow voters to approve a one-cent increase in the state sales tax to make up for any revenue public schools may lose because of the proposed property tax freeze. Sen. Kerr said his proposal was a shell bill that would be refined as it moved its way through the legislative process. The measure is supported by the Oklahoma Farm Bureau and other agricultural organizations that are worried about the impact rising property taxes can have on farmers.

  • Senators killed legislation that would have allowed police in the state's two major metro areas to use surveillance cameras to catch motorists who fail to obey traffic signals. The author of SB 1215, Sen. Jim Williamson, said the legislation was requested by the Tulsa City Council. Opponents labeled it a "Big Brother" bill and questioned whether police officers should be able to use cameras to catch traffic violators. It was defeated 19-27.

  • The full Senate approved legislation that could allow for a longstanding state hiring freeze to be lifted. SB 1050 by Sen. Keith Leftwich would allow hiring freezes only in times of financial emergency. A state hiring freeze has been in place since the early 1990's, even though Oklahoma has been enjoying robust economic growth.

  • The Senate defeated legislation that would increase the penalties for littering. SB 1053 by Sen. Keith Leftwich would have raised the maximum community service hours from 20 to 100. Opponents argued that the increase was too stiff a penalty for someone who dropped a few scraps of paper by the roadside, but Sen. Leftwich stressed that the minimum 5-hour punishment could still be assessed in such cases. With a 22-22 vote, the bill failed to receive the 25 votes needed for passage, but was kept alive on a motion to reconsider.

  • Senators approved legislation designed to help Oklahoma-based wineries. SB 456 by Sen. Robert Milacek would allow in-state wineries to sell directly to restaurants and liquor stores. If approved by the Legislature, the measure would then have to be passed in a statewide vote.

  • House members approved their version of electric deregulation legislation. HB 2541 by Rep. Jim Glover amends the Electric Restructuring Act of 1997, requiring electricity providers to participate in an independent transmission organization that is approved by federal officials. Rep. Glover contends that the legislation would ensure that electricity would continue to be delivered to all Oklahoma customers in a reliable manner, but opponents contended that it may ultimately raise costs for residential consumers. The bill passed 94-5.

Thursday, March 9

  • The Senate continued to work long hours on the floor and in committee as they rushed to beat their next procedural deadline. Lawmakers have until March 16 to pass all bills out of their house of origin. Bills that don't beat the deadline are considered dead for the session.

Other News

  • On Tuesday, the Oklahoma Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case challenging legislative procedures regarding the reading of bills on the House floor. A lawsuit filed by Rep. Odilia Dank claims that every word of a bill must literally be read aloud on the House floor before it can receive final passage. She cited a phrase in the Oklahoma Constitution that states a bill must be "read at length." Under questioning from justices, Dank's attorney Gary Gardenhire conceded that it would be impossible to read every bill on the floor and still pass the volume of legislation that is approved in an average session. Rep. Dank is asking the court to assume original jurisdiction in the case, but the Attorney General's office, which is representing defendant House Speaker Loyd Benson, argued that the court should not hear the case because Rep. Dank had other avenues in which to address her concerns. It also noted that the Speaker of the House has absolute immunity from suits arising from his legislative duties under the Oklahoma Constitution.

  • Even though Oklahoma's state highway construction budget is at its highest level in state history, Oklahoma's road-building program has been plagued by innumerable delays that have thrown it far off schedule, according to a Senate analysis released by Senator Lewis Long Tuesday.

    Since FY '95, ODOT's budget of state and federal funds has increased dramatically, going from $379 million to $574 million. While its level of funding has grown, ODOT's schedule of highway projects has bogged down in delay. For example, the Senate analysis found that the bulk of five-year plan construction projects, some 60 percent or almost $1 billion worth of projects, have been delayed and another 6 percent have been canceled all together. Only one-third of the projects are currently classified as "on schedule."

  • Corporation Commissioner Denise Bode's proposal to have a "gas tax holiday" in Oklahoma was roundly criticized by members of the Keating administration and legislative leaders. Bode wants to reduce the state and federal gas taxes during times of high fuel prices, but Transportation Secretary Neal McCaleb pointed out that such a reduction would devastate the state road construction program, which relies almost exclusively on gas tax revenue. Senate President Pro Tempore Stratton Taylor said no one at the State Capitol considered the Bode plan a serious proposal because of the impact it would have on roads and other entities that receive gas tax revenue such as the public schools. He labeled it a political stunt, noting that Bode is currently considering a bid for a higher political office.