Legislators at the state capitol are engaged in a flurry of activity as the session moves into high gear.
The Oklahoma House of Representatives has passed a number of bills that will wend their way through the Senate. Various measures aim to nullify the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act; modify the Quality Jobs Act; give help to families that provide foster care; add questions to abortion provider forms; and strengthen the law as it applies to bath salts and synthetic drugs.
State Sen. Earl Garrison, D-Muskogee, is one of three senators who represents portions of Cherokee County after the District 3 seat recently vacated by Jim Wilson was eliminated last year by the Legislature. Garrison is appalled at the outcome of the health care vote, which was passed in the House, 77-20.
“I think nullification is terrible,” said Garrison. “It’s saying we’re going to ignore the 200,000 Oklahomans without health insurance, and it impinges on the rights to expand Medicaid. The Medicaid expansion [included] federal dollars we were going to use to help those Oklahomans. Our rural hospitals are hanging on by a thread. The health care law costs us nothing the first three years. I just don’t understand the insanity at all.”
State Rep. Mike Brown, D-Tahlequah, said the measure representats a type of grandstanding, and has no teeth.
“It didn’t do anything; it’s just something they’re going to say,” said Brown. “It’s [PPACA] already been upheld by the [Supreme] Court. I think [lawmakers] will come to realize they’ll expand Medicaid regardless, to get those federal dollars. The irony is the law allows for the privatization of Medicaid. I think whenever they see the aspect of that, they’ll jump on it.”
Garrison is a member of the of the Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, and is himself a veteran. He supports the House measure that would cap the net benefits rate for a company with at least 10 percent of its gross annual payroll earnarkef for veterans of the U.S. military.
“Our veterans are our heroes, so I support anything we can do to make their lives better,” said Garrison.
Garrison opposes the measure adding questions to the Individual Abortion Reporting Form. Questions to be added focus on the performance of an ultrasound, how the abortion was performed, the heartbeat of the fetus prior to abortion, and the number of abortions performed.
“I’m pro-life, but I think we’re pushing that too far,” said Garrison. “Whether a lady wants to hear the heartbeat is between her and her physician. I don’t see passing laws just to get re-elected. I hate to see the issue of ‘life’ politicized, and that’s what they’re doing.”
Brown says the bill doesn’t address the real issue.
“This is just more paperwork for the doctors,” said Brown. “Until the federal government decides they want to overturn Roe vs. Wade, it’s pointless. What we need to do is take care of the needs like feeding those babies and helping those mothers who are on Temporary Aid for Needy Families, instead of cutting funding. If you want to address family issues, you don’t take the milk money from the babies to do it. If you’re pro-life, act like it.”
House Speaker T.W. Shannon proposed the measure that would allow Oklahomans who provide foster care to deduct expenses from their taxes. House Bill 1919 would allow a single person to deduct up to $2,500 in donations a year, and married couples filing jointly could claim up to $5,000. The proposed deduction would take effect Jan. 1, 2014, and now moves to the Senate for consideration.
Garrison also supports this legislation.
“Helping with foster care is important,” he said. “We need good-quality families to provide foster homes. I agree with the governor on that. Anything we can do to strengthen that program, we should probably do.”
Brown also supported the measure.
The House passed HB 2217, which would strengthen the law with regard to bath salts and synthetic drugs. Garrison said he realizes synthetic drugs are a rampant problem, but doesn’t necessarily agree legislation is the way to combat it.
“We’ve got a lot of those synthetic drugs out there killing kids,” said Garrison. “It’s difficult to regulate, and they always stay one step ahead of us in making new ones. I really don’t know the answer to that, but I’m for doing our best to get it off the street.”
Brown, who co-authored the bill, said it casts a wider net for law enforcement to use in getting the substances off the street.
“The thought was to go a put in broader definitions, so that now, any alterations to the synthetic cannibinoids and their packaging will be included,” said Brown. “I think this will give law enforcement a law with some teeth to work with.”
Brown also authored a bill that would have banned texting while driving, but had no success in getting it passed.
“They flatly refused to hear my texting bill,” said Brown.
“I even worked up an alternative to the all-out ban, just asking for a full ban in school zones, work zones or intersections, but they wouldn’t even hear it.”
Rep. Will Fourkiller, D-Stilwell, did not respond to interview requests by press time. Sen. Kim David, R-Wagoner, who represents Hulbert; and Sen. Wayne Shaw, R-Grove, who represents eastern Cherokee County, also did not return phone calls.
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Other bills being considered at the state capitol include:
• HB 2160, which would discourage “abusive and frivolous” lawsuits by schools, requiring districts to pay students’ and parents’ court costs and attorney fees when they initiate civil action or proceedings against students or parents. The bill passed the House, 55-37, and now moves to the Senate.
• HB 1914 would place a moratorium on all agencies and prohibit them from creating new fees or increasing current fees through Jan. 1. Since 2007, state fees have increased by $113 million - a 38 percent increase in less than six years. The bill was passed by the House and now moves on to the Senate.
• HB 1062 allows a handgun to be carried into an elementary or secondary school by a teacher or administrator with a certain amount of training, if the school district permits it. Rep. Mike Shelton, D-Oklahoma City, proposed an amendment allowing vouchers to attend a private school for parents who object to the bill.
• HB 2032 calls for a quarter-point reduction to personal income tax. The current rate is 5.25 percent, and the bill would bring the rate down to an even 5 percent. Gov. Mary Fallin called for this measure in this session’s State of the State address. HB 2032 has passed the House and now moves on to the Senate.
• HB 2231 would create a disaster recovery information website that is more accessible and would allow multiple contributors, including citizens wanting to document local damage. The bill was approved 89-1 and now moves to the Senate.
• HB 1909 has also passed the House, and would require able-bodied recipients, ages 18-50, who are not disabled or raising a child, to perform at least 20 hours of work activities as a condition of receiving food stamps.