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Christian Smith-Socaris on June 29, 2009 - 12:46pm
This was the first session after the Senate switched to a Republican majority, giving the party control of the entire Legislature for the first time in the state's history. With conservative members firmly in charge, they began the session promising to remake government. Progressives had good reason to worry that draconian measures were on the way. While there were some bad laws passed this year, a combination of compromise and gubernatorial vetoes meant that conservative gains were evolutionary, not revolutionary.
Budget and Stimulus: Even as previously enacted tax cuts continued to be phased in, federal Stimulus dollars added $630 million to the $7.2 billion budget, plugging a revenue shortfall, protecting education, healthcare, transportation and public safety spending, while also preventing a raid on the state's rainy day fund. Total state spending increased 1.5%, but still, budget cuts of up to 4 percent were implemented at some of the largest state agencies, while a majority of all agencies received 5 to 7 percent cuts. Also, like many states, revenues have been coming in considerably below expectations for the entire year, making next year's budget process look significantly more daunting. With additional tax cuts slated to take effect in 2010, the state faces even more dire budget prospects next year given inaction on fixing the revenue structure of the state.
Healthcare: Some incremental improvement in the number of insured residents was achieved when the state increased eligibility for the Insure Oklahoma program that subsidizes health insurance premiums for small businesses [H 2026]. However, this was achieved at the cost of reducing the benefits that must be provided with coverage. And most troubling, real insurance reform, a critical aspect of controlling health care costs, didn't move forward. Instead, conservatives passed a "reform" bill in name only [H 1975] that was vetoed by the governor. After overriding a veto of a bill requiring ultrasounds before abortions last year, the anti-choice forces kept marching on. However, they seemed to be limited to advancing bills with little to no impact, such as making it clear that a pregnant woman can use deadly force to defend herself against a physical attack on her fetus.
Education and Child Welfare: The state reformed its student assessment policies [S 222] to improve the quality of the data and increase transparency. A Bill to radically deregulate schools, shifting total control for standards and practices from the state Board of Education to local school boards, passed the legislature but was vetoed by the governor [S 834]. The state's child welfare system will implement a range of reforms in response to an agency audit.
Consumer Rights: Tort liability limits [H 1603], a longtime business lobby priority, were passed into law this session. The new limits were hammered out in a compromise that limits class action suits, and caps non-economic damage awards at $400,000, but has exemptions for gross negligence and other "extraordinary circumstances." One win for consumers came with the state's adoption of an automobile lemon law.
Elections: Two bills that would have undermined Oklahoman's basic rights were prevented from becoming law by the governor's veto. An initiative petition bill [H 2246] would have created a crime of interfering with a petition circulator if a person merely interrupted a conversation between a petition circulator and a potential signer. And voter ID bill [S 692] that would have required photo ID to vote was also vetoed.
Environment: Natural gas was promoted as a motor fuel in legislation that would expand the number of compressed natural gas fueling stations, among other things. And while the state implemented tax credits to attract wind power support services, it also extended tax credits for oil and natural gas companies.