POLITICAL ROUNDUP: Local lawmakers explain bills they've filed for 2021

With the upcoming legislative session at the Oklahoma Capitol set to begin in a little over a week, nearly 3,000 bills have been filed as lawmakers prepare for the next four months of state business.

State lawmakers completed filing this week, with 1,942 House bills and 1,035 Senate bills filed for the first session of Oklahoma's 58th Legislature.

An additional 44 House joint resolutions, two House resolutions, and 26 Senate joint resolutions were filed. Among the bills are many that were introduced in 2020, but never came to fruition due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

State Sen. Dewayne Pemberton, R-Muskogee, has several bills that passed off the floor last year, but were put on hold when legislators had to leave the Capitol. One bill that had not been heard would require insurers to keep doctors within their networks for at least one year from the time someone agrees to a contract.

"The reason for that is, in the past, you could elect to go with Blue Cross Blue Shield or whatever [provider], and your doctor was in network, and a month later, you get a notification saying your doctor is no longer in the network," said Pemberton. "When that happens, they don't pay out-of-network doctors as much, and you end up having to pick up an extra amount of the cost of using that doctor. I don't think that's fair, and a lot of people don't."

If the bill were to pass, insurers would still be able to remove doctors from their networks in the case of medical malpractice, billing and collection violations, or if there was a violation of ethical standards set forth by the Oklahoma Department of Health. Pemberton expects to receive some pushback from Blue Cross Blue Shield, though.

"They want to have full autonomy on who is in their network and who is not; they'd like to be able to move doctors out anytime they want to. So I'm hoping we'll get a hearing in committee on it, and I think when people hear it they'll understand where it's coming from," he said.

Other bills of Pemberton's include authorizing retired teachers to return with no earning limitations for a certain period; creating a task force to study a requirement for high school students to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid; and providing more flexibility for higher education with regard to scholarship money.

State Sen. Blake Stephens, R-Tahlequah, is introducing several bills as a freshman legislator. One would allow municipalities to authorize employees to carry concealed firearms for their personal protection.

"It makes sense," said Stephens. "I think we should be able to defend ourselves on the job. That said, the way we're going to run this is, we're going to give municipalities the option of utilizing it or not. It would be up to them; it just pushes the power back down to local levels."

Stephens also filed two bills on vaccinations. One would prohibit discrimination by public accommodation on the basis of vaccination status; the other would prohibit sharing of immunization records without consent. He called it a pro-active bill.

"This is the land of the free, and I still believe you should have the freedom of choice and to decide for yourself what is best for you in your own personal life," Stephens said. "I believe that's no different than the vaccination for COVID-19. There's a lot of political pressures concerning the COVID-19, and this legislation is designed to reflect the freedom to choose. Whether you want to engage in taking that vaccine or not, you should not lose your liberties if you decide not to."

State Rep. Bob Ed Culver, R-Tahlequah, chose not to file bills his first year in office. He said smaller government is always better, and wants to hold off until he can propose "meaningful" legislation.

"There will be 2,000 to 3,000 bills filed this year," Culver said. "Do we need more? Probably not. Just filing something to say I've filed a bill, I don't see what good that does. You want something that's going to be meaningful, has some meat in the bill. Just to say I've got a bill passed - to me, that's not the way you do it."

The 2021 session will convene Monday, Feb.1, at which time lawmakers will begin discussions on approving a budget and deciding what bills will be heard at the committee level.

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