March 16, 2013
By Michael McNutt
Two key proposals by Gov. Mary Fallin — reducing the top personal income tax rate down to 5 percent and overhauling Oklahoma's workers' compensation court — remain intact after lawmakers completed the first of three key deadlines.
“I think we'll get a tax cut done this year,” Fallin said. “There seems to be great buy-in from both the (House) speaker and the (Senate) pro tem.”
The House of Representatives last week passed House Bill 2032, which contains Fallin's income tax-cutting proposal to reduce the state's highest personal income tax rate from 5.25 percent to 5 percent. It calls for the income tax cut to be paid for out of available revenue and is not dependent on reducing or eliminating any tax credits or exemptions or deductions as most of last year's proposals did.
HB 2032 is one of two bills still alive that call for reducing the top rate; Senate Bill 585 would lower the top personal income tax rate to 4.75 percent by eliminating several tax preferences by 2015, including those for equipment for recycling or waste reduction and for child-care businesses.
The Senate three weeks ago passed Senate Bill 1062, which calls for changing the state's workers' compensation court and replace it with an administrative system.
“We're excited that we may be able to get some more major reform done that will help our businesses while protecting our injured workers and making sure they get the health care that they need through the workers' compensation system,” Fallin said.
On the issue of school safety, Fallin said she wants to see the final version of House Bill 1062 before commenting on it. The measure, passed last week, would allow trained public school teachers to bring handguns to schools. She said she likes the recommendations of the Oklahoma Commission on School Security, which were incorporated into four Senate bills.
The commission headed by Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb was formed shortly after the December killings of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Recommendations include calling for a new security tip line, mental health training for campus workers and a new state institute to continue training, research and advocacy on the issue.
“We'll just have to wait and see what is included in any type of legislation that might involve arms in schools,” Fallin said. “I'm certainly a huge supporter and proponent of Second Amendment rights, but I also want to make sure that we're wise about our public policy, that we listen to our law enforcement, our school officials, our teachers, our parents.
“The lieutenant governor's got some great recommendations that I'm inclined to support,” she said.
Thursday was the deadline for House and Senate measures to get out of their chambers of origin. The House and Senate have until April 25 to review those measures and send them back. The session is scheduled to end May 31.
Measures that fail to advance by the deadlines are considered dormant. Language still can be inserted in measures that have the similar subject title, and it's not uncommon for some bills to be stripped and replaced with new text in the session's final weeks.
Fallin, the state's first female governor, had much success in her first year in office in 2011 when her priorities all won approval. They included getting changes in the civil justice system and the workers' compensation system and eliminating the “trial de novo” system that made it hard to fire underperforming teachers. That year marked the first time in state history that Republicans controlled both legislative chambers and the governor's office.
Fallin stumbled last year when lawmakers spurned her income tax-cutting proposal and failed to respond to her challenge to repair the crumbling state Capitol. Her tax proposal, one of five last year, called for cutting the top personal income tax rate almost 2 percent and reducing the number of tax brackets. Lawmakers scrapped all the proposals and tried a couple other ideas before failing to approve legislation by the time the session was required to end in late May.
House Speaker T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, serving his first year in the post, along with his leadership team has kept disturbances in the House to a minimum. Last year, under then-Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, action often was delayed by Democrats working with Republicans who opposed the term-limited speaker.
Two weeks ago Democrats on the House floor got agitated when Rep. Paul Wesselhoft, R-Moore, successfully made a motion to limit the time of debate to discuss a bill that would lower the income cap on the Oklahoma's Promise scholarship program for low-income students. Democrats, who are outnumbered 72-29, attempted various parliamentary procedures to delay action on the bill; the gridlock ended about 40 minutes later when Shannon went over and talked with Wesselhoft, who then apologized for making the motion and asked that normal debate time be allowed on the bill, which eventually passed.
House Minority Leader Scott Inman, D-Del City, who gets along well with Shannon, questioned the speaker's time-management decisions by allowing what he called frivolous measures to be heard during the deadline week.
“It has been a contentious week filled with a lot of heated and contentious debate on what I think will ultimately turn out to be probably a big waste of time,” he said. “While they may be hot-button issues to a few select members of the Legislature, we believe when the session comes to an end in May several of the bills that have taken a considerable amount of time over the last few days will end up on a shelf somewhere and nowhere near our state statutes.”
Inman said his caucus is disappointed the GOP House leadership didn't take up HB 1503, which would have banned texting while driving. Shannon has said he was concerned that the measure would be difficult to enforce
“We believe it deserves a vote,” he said. “It's not going to be brought up for a vote on the floor this session … because we'd rather hear bills that make political statements.”
Shannon was unavailable to respond to the criticism. The speaker meets weekly with reporters Thursdays, but canceled last week's session because the House took up bills through the afternoon and he had to leave before the session ended to participate in the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C.
The House worked late each of the four nights it was in session last week. Tuesday's nearly 15-hour session went past midnight. Two Democrats had verbal outbursts toward the end of the session because they were frustrated for not being recognized by the presiding officer.
Rep. James Lockhart apologized Wednesday to House members for his outburst; after the session ended shortly after midnight Tuesday, Lockhart, D-Heavener, rushed up to Rep. Don Armes, who was presiding in the speaker's chair, and began screaming. His outburst came about 10 minutes after Rep. Cory Williams, D-Stillwater, had to be gaveled down by Armes. R-Faxon, for an unacceptable comment he made.
“Anytime we stay really late while we're in session there's always a potential for people to get tired and short-tempered and that's unfortunate,” Inman said. “It happens more frequently than our caucus would like.
“Mom always said nothing good ever happens after midnight,” he said. “Well I can tell you in the Legislature nothing good happens right before midnight and this is a case in point.”