Thursday, March 3, 2011

What's been going on at the Capitol this week?

Weekly Wrap
Immigration Reform Advances
​Legislation that cleared a House committee this week would address illegal immigration in Oklahoma by enhancing reform efforts.
           House Bill 1446 includes a multiple provisions that represent the input of a number of House lawmakers.
           The legislation would:
• make it a felony to engage in human trafficking;
• bar illegal immigrants from receiving tuition for post-secondary education;
• allow state agencies to report illegal immigrants who apply for state or federal aid;
• require employers to verify the immigration status of potential employees;
• outlaw the practice of illegal immigrants seeking work as an independent contractor; and
• make it a crime to pick up illegal immigrants for the purpose of employing them.
The legislation also includes language borrowed from the Arizona immigration law to prevent racial profiling.
           House Bill 1446 is a starting point that will obviously undergo critical examination in the joint House-Senate committee on immigration. Officials plan to seek input from a variety of groups, especially law enforcement officials. The joint committee’s goal is to address the problems created by illegal immigration, but also ensure any new law is reasonable and practical for law enforcement to carry out.
​House Bill 1446 passed out of the House Judiciary Committee this week and now goes to the floor of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.
Legislative Leaders Push Forward with Lawsuit Reforms
House Bill 2128 cleared the Judiciary Committee this week, paving the way for lawsuit reform in Oklahoma. The measure includes a cap of $300,000 for noneconomic damages in all civil actions and repeals the inactive indemnity fund.
​Damages for noneconomic losses are damages for so-called “pain and suffering,” emotional distress, loss of consortium or companionship, and other vague and intangible injuries. These damages involve no direct economic loss and have no precise value. It is very difficult for juries to assign a dollar value to these losses. As a result, these awards tend to be erratic and, because of the highly charged environment of personal injury trials, excessive.
In addition, HB 2128 also includes language stating that for any civil action arising from a claimed bodily injury, the amount of compensation which the judge and jury may award a plaintiff for economic loss shall not be subject to any limitation.  
House Bill 2128 now proceeds to the floor of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.
Lawmakers Advance Pension Accountability Act
The state House today passed an important reform measure to improve the openness and accountability of the direct investments being made to the Oklahoma Teachers’ Retirement System.
           House Bill 1007 creates the Pension Funding Accountability Act. The measure provides for the monthly transfer of revenues from the Teachers’ Retirement System Dedicated Revenue Revolving Fund to the Teachers’ Retirement System of Oklahoma (TRS) for the purpose of funding the system’s unfunded liability.
           Last year, State Question 744 was a major issue facing voters. The measure would have imposed a billion dollar unfunded mandate for education funding. After the facts of the issue were publicly aired, Oklahoma citizens rejected it by a margin of roughly 81 percent to 19 percent.
​However, one issue associated with that debate did not receive extensive scrutiny – the reliability of the per-pupil funding figure cited by supporters of SQ 744.
           According to official actuarial reports, for Fiscal Year 2010 the total contributions into the teachers’ retirement system were approximately $884 million. Roughly $200 million of that total each year is excluded from Oklahoma’s per-pupil spending because it is invested directly into the system.
House Bill 1007 passed the Oklahoma House of Representatives on a 69-27 vote. It will now go to the Oklahoma Senate.
Bill Would Help Citizens Search for Health Coverage
The Legislature continued taking steps forward to reduce the number of uninsured Oklahomans with House Bill 2130, which defines the membership and appointments to the Health Care for the Uninsured Board (HUB).
​The purpose of the HUB is to establish a system of counseling, including a website, to educate and assist consumers in selecting an insurance policy that meets their needs.
           The seven-member HUB consists of representatives from the Insurance Commissioner’s Office, the Oklahoma Healthcare Authority, insurance companies, agents and also consumers. The purpose of the HUB is to implement a market-based insurance exchange.
The HUB is comprised of appointees from the Governor, Speaker, and Senate Pro Tempore. The foundation and framework of the Oklahoma exchange were established in 2009. The actual concept of the exchange model was developed several years ago by the Heritage Foundation.  
Oklahoma is one of seven states to receive an early innovator grant with Oklahoma receiving the largest amount of $54 million.
​House Bill 2128 passed the House Public Health Committee this afternoon and will proceed to the floor of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.
Transportation Transparency Act Passes House
House lawmakers voted this week to increase public scrutiny of state road revenue.
​House Bill 1489, the Taxpayer Transparency Act, passed through the Oklahoma House of Representatives with no opposition. It would create a single state Web site where the public can access all state road funding data.
The bill’s author noted that over half of some transportation-generated revenue, such as motor vehicle fees, currently goes to non-transportation sources and agencies.
With billions of dollars in unfunded road and bridge repairs, he argued that citizens should know where those tax dollars are actually going.
​House Bill 1489 passed 96-0 and will now go to the Oklahoma Senate for consideration.
Citizens Could Decide Open Carry
Oklahoma voters could decide whether or not to authorize the open carry of firearms under legislation approved by a House committee this week.
​House Bill 1796 calls for an election to determine if state law should be changed to allow citizens to openly carry firearms.
​Under the bill, Oklahomans with a valid handgun license (which would be the equivalent of the current concealed carry license) would have the right to carry a weapon openly without concealing it.
​Those with the license would have to undergo background checks and firearms training before being licensed.
​House Bill 1796 passed out of the House Public Safety Committee on a 17-0 vote today. It will next go to the floor of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.
Bill Would Require Criminal Background Checks in DHS Foster Care Cases
​Legislation approved by a committee this week would require the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (OKDHS) to conduct criminal background checks on all adults living in a home before a foster child is reunited with a parent.  
​The bill was prompted by the case of seven-year-old Aja Johnson, who was found dead in a wooded area in rural Norman roughly a year ago. Aja’s stepfather, Lester Hobbs, had a violent past that ultimately included killing his daughter.
House Bill 2136 is designed to deter similar tragedies in the future.
​The bill directs DHS to conduct a safety analysis upon receipt of a report that a child may be abused or neglected. The analysis must include a criminal background check of any adult known to be in the home of the child and inquiries into Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation and Federal Bureau of Investigation records.
​The measure also requires service provider progress reports submitted to the court be delivered to each party involved in determining the placement of a child. In addition, the measure permits the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth to disclose any previous child welfare encounters or investigations involving a child who has died or nearly died.
Committee OKs Freedom Trail Act
Legislation approved by a House appropriations subcommittee would create an official Oklahoma Freedom Trail to recognize and document state historical sites associated with the freedom and civil rights movement of African-American citizens.
           House Bill 1979 would direct the state tourism and transportation departments, the Oklahoma Historical Society and the Oklahoma Film and Music Commission to work jointly to promote the Oklahoma Freedom Trail. The legislation also calls for a working group to establish what sites would be included on the trail and to create a map and brochure to promote it.
​Among the sites that may be included are the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park in Tulsa, the University of Oklahoma garden dedicated to Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher, and portraits of noted civil rights leaders at the Oklahoma Capitol.
           House Bill 1979 was approved unanimously by the House Appropriations and Budget Subcommittee on Natural Resources and Regulatory Services. It now awaits consideration in the House Appropriations and Budget Committee.  
Lawmakers Vote to Ban Foreign Law in State Courts
Legislation to ban the use of foreign law in Oklahoma courts gained committee approval this week.
           House Bill 1552 declares that any court action will be “void and unenforceable” if the court ruling is based “on any law, rule, legal code or system that would not grant the parties affected by the ruling or decision the same fundamental liberties, rights, and privileges granted under the United States and Oklahoma Constitutions.”
​The measure is similar to State Question 755, which prohibited the use of foreign law and expressly prohibited reliance on Sharia law in Oklahoma courts. SQ 755 passed with 70 percent of the vote last November, but implementation has been held up by court challenges.
​To address one of the issues raised since passage of State Question 755, House Bill 1552 declares, “The Legislature fully recognizes the right to contract freely under the laws of this state, and also recognizes that this right may be reasonably and rationally circumscribed pursuant to the state’s interest to protect and promote rights and privileges granted under the United States or Oklahoma Constitution.”
           House Bill 1552 passed 10-3 in the House Judiciary Committee this week and will next be heard on the floor of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.
Millions Could Be Saved With Modernization Reform
The Oklahoma House of Representatives Government Modernization Committee has approved legislation to save millions of taxpayers dollars thought the implementation of information technology (IT) process reforms.  
           House Bill 1304 would transfer all information technology assets and employees to the Information Services Division of the Office of State Finance. It would also prohibit agencies from purchasing or leasing any information technology equipment between the time the bill takes effect and July 1, 2011.
​The freeze on information technology expenditures and projects could save the state as much as $50 million in the fiscal year 2011 budget.
           The committee vote took place after Oklahoma Chief Information Officer Alex Pettit and the Capgemini consulting firm reported on the preliminary findings from their recent study of Oklahoma’s IT systems.
           The report found that the state utilizes 76 separate redundant financial tracking systems despite the fact that the state has one enterprise-wide financial software that all agencies should be using. There are 22 unique time and attendance systems, 17 imaging systems, 48 reporting and analytics applications, 30,000 desktop computers of which 2,000 are not in use, 25 different desktop operating systems, 133 email systems, and 27 SQL Server and Oracle systems with 92 percent of the SQL Server programs not being supported.
           The study also referenced a report by the Gartner Group, which indicates Oklahoma is spending $35.6 million more than the average IT spend of other state governments.
           House Bill 1304 includes several of the Capgemini report’s suggestions for addressing the IT shortcomings. The legislation was called for by Governor Mary Fallin in her State of the State address.
Lawmakers Approve Bill to Require Initiative Petitions to Identify Funding Source
Legislation approved by the Oklahoma House of Representatives would require initiative petitions that mandate new spending to identify a funding source.
           House Bill 1225 would require those submitting a petition to include a statement “outlining all sources of funding to be used in the measure.”
           House Bill 1225 passed by a vote of 52-46 and now proceeds to the Senate.
Committee Approves Alternative Sentencing for Veterans with PTSD
Legislation approved by a House committee would allow veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or traumatic brain injury (TBI) to receive treatment when they are convicted of a crime
           House Bill 1081 would allow a judge to send a military veteran convicted of a crime to the Department of Veterans Affairs for treatment if the defendant was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).
​The bill’s author, state Rep. John Bennett (R-Sallisaw), is a Marine who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Under the bill, the PTSD or TBI would have to be service-related and have contributed to the commission of the crime.
           As a private citizen, Bennett worked with Matt Stiner and state Rep. Fred Jordan (R-Jenks), all Marine veterans, to help create the state’s first veteran’s court, an alternative sentencing venue for veterans struggling with addiction due, in part, to PTSD.
           House Bill 1081will build on the success of that program, which has enjoyed an astounding 99 percent success rate since December 2008.
           While the veteran’s court serves only those accused of misdemeanors, the new proposed alternative sentencing program would also include those involved in some felony crimes.
           The program could ultimately save taxpayer dollars because the alternative sentencing/treatment programs would be far less expensive than automatic incarceration, Bennett noted.
           House Bill 1081 passed unanimously in the House Judiciary Committee. It now awaits a vote on the floor of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.
Committee Advances Bill to Facilitate Bone Marrow Donation
A House committee advanced legislation to facilitate bone marrow donation this week.
           House Bill 1078 would authorize a leave of absence for employees to make a bone marrow or organ donation and allow those employees to use sick, vacation and annual leave to do so.
           House Bill 1078 was approved by the House Economic Development, Tourism and Financial Services Committee and awaits consideration on the House floor.
Bill Aiding Small Businesses Advances
Legislation to reduce the regulatory burden of local small businesses cleared a House committee this week.
​House Bill 1087 would authorize the Department of Public Safety to issue an annual vehicle permit to a transportation company or manufacturer of portable buildings solely for the movement of oversize portable buildings.
​The bill also requires that the Oklahoma Load Limit Map be available on the Internet.
           House Bill 1087 passed the House Transportation Committee on a 13-5 vote. It will now proceed to the floor of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.
Committee Approves Bill to Improve Appropriations Process
Under legislation passed by a House committee this week, lawmakers would have more information before passing a state budget.
           House Bill 1422 authorizes the Oklahoma State and Education Employees Group Insurance Board to begin education employees’ insurance plan year on July 1, starting in 2012.
           Changing the insurance plan’s start date allows lawmakers to know the cost of the plan before they put together the state budget. In the past, it was not unusual for entities to have to ask for a supplemental due to rate increases when a new plan started in January – the halfway point of the fiscal year. It was also not unusual for the plan to be less than fully funded, requiring school districts to address the shortfall by diverting money from other school programs.
           House Bill 1422 was approved by the House Insurance Committee and will now proceed to the House floor for consideration.
Lawmakers Approve Eminent Domain Bill
Lawmakers approved legislation that would ensure Oklahomans who lose property due to a city or other authority’s use of eminent domain have the right to buy back any part of the property that goes unused.
           House Bill 1226 gives a property owner the first right to buy back property acquired through eminent domain.
           The legislation would also require the city or authority to send the original owner a notice of the right to buy back the property at either its original price or, if it had lost value, at the current appraised value. The original owner or his or her heirs would have 90 days to claim the right to purchase the property.
           House Bill 1226 now proceeds to the Senate for consideration.
Committee Clears Bill Creating Sickle-Cell Anemia Program
Legislation that would direct the state health department to provide information on data and resources related to sickle-cell disease has been passed by a House committee.
           Sickle cell disease affects an estimated 70,000 to 100,000 Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, a vaccine that protects against invasive pnemococcal disease and has nearly halved the number of sickle cell-related deaths among children less than four years of age.
           House Bill 1980 now awaits consideration by the full House.
Committee Approves Derby Bill Aiding Disabled
Legislation that will aid vehicles transporting elderly citizens who require wheelchair has gained committee approval.
           Under House Bill 1687, the state would issue a bright orange disability placard for vehicles transporting citizens in wheelchairs. The placard would be granted only to vehicles that have a wheelchair ramp mounted in the car, giving them the right to use handicap parking spaces.
           Under current law, the transport vehicle often has to park at the far edge of the lot to allow the ramp room to unload a senior citizen. As a result, the elderly person may then have to cross the parking lot in a wheelchair, potentially moving below the sightline of drivers pulling into the lot – a potentially dangerous situation.
           House Bill 1687 passed the House General Government Committee on a 14-0 vote. It now goes to the floor of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.

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