The Oklahoma Senate

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

In another busy week of activity, Senators worked long hours in an effort to beat a fast-approaching legislative deadline. All bills had to be passed out of their house of origin by Thursday, March 16 or they were considered dead for the session. The next legislative deadline is Thursday, March 30, when all House bills must be passed out of Senate committee.

 

Monday, March 13

  • On a motion to reconsider, Senators approved school administration legislation that they had previously defeated. SB 1544 by Sen. Carol Martin would allow school districts to share district personnel in an effort to trim administrative costs. On its second attempt, the bill received enough votes for passage, receiving approval on a 27-17 vote.Senators also approved legislation that would give home-schooled children greater access to the public school system. SB 1022 by Sen. Glenn Coffee would allow such students to attend up to one-half day of classes in the school district where they reside. It would also reflect their attendance in the state aid formula.

  • Despite reservations from Senators who questioned the state's increasing reliance on the private prison industry, the full Senate approved legislation that would help clear the ways for a public-private corrections venture in northern Oklahoma. SB 1407 by Sen. Paul Muegge would allow local trusts to issue bonds for a prison facility that would ultimately be leased back to the state for operation.

  • Legislation designed to boost the Oklahoma tourism industry was approved by the full Senate. SB 3 by Sen. Jeff Rabon would establish the Oklahoma Tourism Development Act. The Hugo legislator said the legislation is modeled after the Quality Jobs Act, an incentive program that rewards companies for creating new jobs. SB 3 would apply to tourist attractions that are built in Oklahoma.

  • Senators approved legislation that would expand the current executive cabinet. SB 1507 by Senator Ben Brown would create a new position of cabinet secretary for Oklahoma children's programs.

  • Senators approved legislation designed to make certain homes safer in case of fire. SB 1328 by Sen. Angela Monson would require "burglar bars" that are placed on the windows of homes to be equipped with a special safety release mechanism. Bars without quick release features have been blamed for a number of fire deaths around the state.

  • The Senate approved legislation that would provide a sales tax holiday to Oklahomans. SB 1252 by Sen. Ben Robinson would allow sales tax exemptions on the first Saturday in the months of September, October, November and December. SB 1252 is the second sales tax holiday bill approved by the Senate. It has also passed SB 810 by Sen. Jeff Rabon, legislation that would place a sales tax exemption on clothing and footwear from the first Friday in August to Sunday.

  • Legislation aimed at vehicles that are playing unusually loud music received narrow approval from the Senate. SB 1427 by Sen. Sam Helton would prohibit any such vehicle from emitting music or noise that can be heard from 50 feet or more. The bill passed on a 26-17 vote.


Tuesday, March 14

  • The full Senate approved legislation that would overhaul Oklahoma's workers compensation system, changing it from a judicial system to an administrative one. SB 1606 by Sen. Scott Pruitt passed on a 45-3 vote, even though some Senators argued that it would not reduce costs as advertised. The measure is ultimately expected to end up in conference committee where lawmakers will attempt to resolve differences. Sen. Pruitt and other supporters said that most states have switched to administrative workers compensation systems in an effort to cut costs and improve benefits for workers. They contended that a judicial system encouraged expensive litigation of comp cases, but opponents pointed out that the majority of cases in Oklahoma, some 75%, are settled before they ever reach court. Opponents also argued that the switch to an administrative system would reduce injured workers' access to legal counsel, increasing the likelihood that they would not receive the benefits to which they were entitled. Some of the major provisions of the Pruitt legislation include:

    1. Creates a two-tiered administrative process for workers comp claims. Level one would facilitate the processing of claims and the dissemination of information. The facilitators would be county-level mediators who are retained by an administrator selected by the Governor;

    2. Eliminate Oklahoma's 10-judge workers compensation court, replacing it with 10 magistrates appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Senate. The magistrates would form level two of the administrative system, handling disputed claims. Magistrates would be required to schedule a hearing within 7-days of a referral and hold a hearing within 21 days;

    3. Limit attorney's fees to time and actual expense, totaling no more than 10 percent of the disputed amount of the damage award. The 10 percent fee would be based on the difference between the amount of the final damage award and the award initially offered in the case.

  • The Senate approved legislation that would deregulate the electric industry. Sen. Kevin Easley, author of SB 220, said the legislation would open up the industry to competition from multiple electric providers, ultimately reducing prices for consumers. The legislation includes a five-year extension on the current price freeze on electricity rates that was adopted in 1997. Sen. Dave Herbert argued against the bill, claiming that large corporations would benefit from the deregulation at the expense of the average consumer. Sen. Easley said it would be more beneficial for Oklahoma to act on deregulation now, rather than waiting for the federal government to set guidelines. The legislation was approved on a 34-11 vote.

  • Senators defeated legislation that would have given farmers greater leeway in dealing with the Environmental Protection Agency on agricultural runoff issues. Opponents argued that SB 1531 by Sen. Bruce Price would open the door for polluters, although supporters contended it would simply allow farmers to take corrective measures without threat of immediate sanction. The legislation was defeated 24-17.

  • The Senate approved another piece of legislation authorizing a sales tax holiday in Oklahoma. SB 815 by Sen. Sam Helton would allow consumers to buy clothing items free of the state sales tax during the first weekend of August. Exemptions would be limited to purchases totaling $100 or less. The legislation is modeled after a similar law in Texas that allows a sales tax holiday for shoppers during the "back to school" shopping season.

  • On a motion to reconsider, Senators reversed an earlier vote and approved an anti-littering measure by Sen. Keith Leftwich. SB 1053 would increase the maximum amount of community service that could be ordered for offenders convicted of littering from 20 hours to 50 hours. Sen. Leftwich originally asked that the maximum penalty be 100 hours, but amended the bill to 50. It passed 35-12.

  • Senators defeated legislation that would have required new warning lights for school buses. SB 885 by Sen. Jerry Smith would have required buses to have flashing white or amber warning lights that could be displayed during times of inclement weather or darkness. It failed on a 20-26 vote.


Wednesday, March 15

  • Senators approved "patients' rights" legislation designed to give Oklahomans more leverage in their dealings with HMO's. SB 1206 by Sen. Brad Henry would allow members to sue their HMO if it denied them necessary medical treatment or made other errors in regard to vital health care. Sen. Henry noted that public employees already have the right to sue their HMOs and that his legislation would simply extend that right to the private sector. Opponents argued that the legislation could cause insurance premiums to raise, but Sen. Henry said no such increases had been linked to similar legislation in other states. SB 1206 measure is patterned after a similar law passed by the Texas Legislature and signed into law by Texas Governor George Bush. The bill passed 41-4.

  • The Senate approved "clean up" legislation for the state's concealed and carry gun permit law. SB 1496 by Sen. Frank Shurden would add several new exceptions to the existing statute. Among other things, the legislation would require a DUI offender to wait three years and obtain a doctor's notice before becoming eligible for a license. Another provision would allow convicted felons or individuals who possess a stolen weapon to be charged if a child commits a crime with the gun.

  • Senators also approved clean up legislation for state workers compensation laws. SB 1149 by Sen. Brad Henry reorganizes a lengthy section of law dealing with benefits and breaks it into 15 different sections. Sen. Henry said the changes would make is easier to make changes to the law in the future.

  • On a motion to reconsider, Sen. Owen Laughlin passed legislation creating the Oklahoma Livestock Packers Act. SB 1133 would prohibit packers from discriminating on prices and would require all prices to be reported publicly. Opponents raised concerns that the bill was based on an unconstitutional South Dakota law, but Sen. Laughlin assured them that the Attorney General had been consulted about the legislation and was supportive. SB 1133 passed on a 30-17 vote.

Thursday, March 16

  • The Senate adjourned for the weekend after completing a long agenda of work. Senators addressed all pending Senate legislation on their floor agenda and are preparing to return to committee where they will examine bills sent to them by members of the House. Senators have until March 30 to pass all House bills out of Senate committee.


Other News

  • The Oklahoma Supreme Court upheld a legislative action transferring funds from a tire recycling fund for use in general revenue appropriations. Several Republican legislators had argued that the transfer was unconstitutional, but justices upheld a lower court's decision to dismiss the case. The plaintiffs had contended that the transfer constituted a revenue raising measure and therefore must be approved by a vote of the people, but justices rejected the argument.

  • The State Senate took court action this week to preserve an insurance rebate that would reward thousands of Oklahoma businesses and pay off approximately 6,000 injured workers in the process. The Senate is fighting a lawsuit filed by the Oklahoma State Chamber of Commerce that would overturn a state law ordering the State Insurance Fund to rebate surplus money to its customers. The fund sells workers compensation insurance to approximately one-third of Oklahoma's businesses and to many state agencies. The state plans to use its share of the refund to pay off injured workers who are owed money by the Special Indemnity Fund or Multiple Injury Trust Fund.

    The rebate to Oklahoma businesses, which could go as high as $150 million, would be the equivalent of one-year-and-a-half of free comp insurance for the average policyholder. A recent actuarial study indicated the refund would not harm the State Insurance Fund in any way.

  • State revenues declined slightly in February, falling 5 percent below the previous year and 8 percent below the estimate. Officials with the Office of State Finance attributed the decline to lower-than-expected income tax revenues, speculating that Oklahomans anticipating tax refunds are filing faster than those who owe additional money to the state.

  • Republican George Bush and Democrat Al Gore easily won their presidential primary battles in Oklahoma. Bush garnered 79 percent of the Republican vote to John McCain's 10 percent. Vice-president Gore pulled in 69 percent of the Democratic vote compared to 25 percent for Bill Bradley. Both Gore and Bush secured their party's nominations after Tuesday's vote in 10 primary states.



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