Friday, May 20, 2011

2011 Legislative Session Wrap-up

Legislative Session Concludes
The 2011 legislative session concluded this week as lawmakers finished work on a number of bills.
First and foremost, lawmakers approved a balanced budget that dealt with a $500 million shortfall largely by cutting spending, just as working families do in tough times.
Redistricting plans were approved with bipartisan support, crafting new legislative districts in accordance with legal guidelines.
In addition, lawmakers also approved several major reforms in a wide range of areas.

Economic reforms
Lawmakers approved lawsuit reforms to make Oklahoma a more attractive place to do business.
House Bill 2128 caps vague noneconomic damages (commonly known as “pain and suffering”) at $350,000 in all civil actions. Under the bill, individuals could still receive unlimited awards for actual economic damages, such as lost wages and medical expenses.
Senate Bill 862 eliminates joint and several liability, sometimes known as the “deep pocket” rule, where each and every defendant in a tort lawsuit is liable for the entire amount of a plaintiff’s damage regardless of their degree of fault. SB 862 ensures that plaintiffs seek defendants who are most at fault rather than defendants with the most financial assets.
Senate Bill 865 requires that juries be instructed in civil cases that no part of an award for damages for personal injury or wrongful death is subject to federal or state income tax; and the jury should not consider income taxes when determining a proper compensation award.
                        Senate Bill 878 reforms workers’ compensation laws. The bill will reduce the fee schedule for medical reimbursement rates by 5 percent and require physicians and the workers’ compensation court to follow national treatment guidelines, called the Official Disability Guidelines, which is expected to also reduce medical costs.
Overall, the measure is designed to reduce “doctor shopping” that can drive up expenses, drive down attorney involvement in cases by encouraging mediation and other remedies, increase the use of vocational rehabilitation, and speed up the process for injured workers to get treatment.

 Pension Reform
            For decades, the financial soundness of our state’s pension systems has been declining. In the last 10 years, we have gone from having an unfunded liability of $6 billion to $16 billion.
            This year, lawmakers tackled that problem head-on, approving reforms that will collectively produce billions in savings over the next 30 years – the largest such debt reduction achievement in state history.
            The major reforms enacted require that cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) be funded when enacted, and adjust the retirement age for those now entering the system to account for the increased life expectancy.

House Bill 1456 requires that Oklahoma’s public schools be given an annual grade of “A” to “F” based on student performance on state tests. The new grading system will provide an easily understood way for parents to obtain a true apples-to-apples comparison between state schools.
            Senate Bill 346 ends social promotion by requiring students entering first grade in the 2011-2012 school year to master grade-appropriate reading skills by the end of third grade in order to be promoted to the fourth grade.
            Senate Bill 969 creates the “Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Act.” The bill creates a tax credit for donations to scholarship-granting organizations or educational improvement grant organizations.
Scholarships funded through the tax credit program would serve children from low-income families and allow them to attend private schools. The legislation also funds grants to help rural schools increase offerings in areas where private school is not an option.
            House Bill 2139 grants the State Superintendent of Public Instruction full authority over personnel issues at the Department of Education. 

            Legislation reforming Oklahoma’s property tax laws will go before the voters next year.
            House Joint Resolution 1002 allows Oklahoma citizens to vote to impose a 3-percent (or rate of inflation) annual cap that would limit future property tax increases.
            Under current law, property tax valuations can increase 5 percent each year.

Pro-life legislation
House Bill 1888 creates the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which bans abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Scientific studies have shown that at 20 weeks an unborn child can feel pain. The bill exempts situations in which the life of the mother is at risk or when the mother faces serious risk of substantial and irreversible physical impairment.
            Senate Bill 547 ensures standard health insurance policies sold in Oklahoma or sold through a state health insurance exchange do not include elective abortion coverage. The bill prevents Oklahomans from unwillingly subsidizing abortion coverage simply by purchasing health insurance. Under SB 547, those who want abortion coverage could acquire it through optional supplemental coverage with a separate premium.

Public Safety
House Bill 2131 implements corrections reforms designed to reduce costs and ultimately increase public safety. House Bill 2131 expands community sentencing programs, modifies the governor’s role in the parole process for nonviolent offenders, and establishes requirements for members of the Pardon and Parole Board.

Government Streamlining and Transparency
House Bill 1086 creates the Transparency, Accountability and Innovation in Oklahoma State Government 2.0 Act of 2011. Among other things, the bill requires that all payments disbursed from the State Treasury be made only through an electronic payment mechanism and that the “” website include all spending data subject to publication by the “School District Transparency Act.”
By implementing an electronic payment mechanism, the Office of State Finance predicts a savings of $3.6 million can be accomplished by moving from the current system to the electronic funds transfer system.  The assumption by the Office of State Finance is that the state will save a processing fee of $13.50 per check on 230,000 checks.
House Bill 1304, the Information Technology Consolidation and Coordination Act, is designed to make state IT operations more efficient, secure and effective. Its key proposal is to place all IT operations under the state chief information officer (CIO) rather than spreading the operations out across the state’s hundreds of agencies, boards and commissions.
            Oklahoma’s current IT operation has 76 financial systems, 22 unique time and attendance systems, 17 different imaging systems, 30 data center locations and 129 email and mobile device services. One of the goals of placing IT operations under the CIO is to streamline those services into uniform systems across state government. It’s estimated that the bill could save the state about $360 million over the next five or six years.


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