Wednesday, January 7, 2009

GOP uses newly minted power to limit insurance mandates, tax cuts

GOP uses newly minted power to limit insurance mandates, tax cuts
by Janice Francis-Smith
The Journal Record
January 7, 2009

OKLAHOMA CITY – State Sen. Glenn Coffee became the first Republican Senate president pro tempore in state history on Tuesday. Little more than an hour later, the new Republican majority used its power to grant special protections for the insurance industry and to establish an unprecedented level of power to the new Senate leadership.

Coffee, R-Oklahoma City, hailed the rules changes as reforms to promote open government. State Sen. Jay Paul Gumm, D-Durant, called the new rules an abomination. The rule change appeared to be an effort to thwart Gumm’s ongoing battle to pass Nick’s Law, which would require private health insurance companies in Oklahoma to cover autism treatment.

The revised rules pushed through by the Republican majority on a party-line vote of 26-22 requires any bill dealing with tax cuts or insurance mandates to be accompanied by an actuarial analysis in order to be heard in committee. The Oklahoma Tax Commission would prepare financial impact verification for tax-cut bills, while the Oklahoma State and Education Employees Group Insurance Board or the Oklahoma Health Care Authority would prepare fiscal information for insurance mandates.

However, neither the rules nor state statute compels state agencies to produce the fiscal analysis in a timely manner. If the agencies fail to provide the fiscal analysis in time to meet legislative deadlines, their inaction could kill the bill, said Gumm. Furthermore, the rules require the fiscal impact report be requested by the head of the committee or a designee of the majority floor leader, but not the author of the legislation in question.

State Sen. Jim Wilson, D-Tahlequah, asked the new floor leader, state Sen. Todd Lamb, R-Edmond, why the insurance industry was singled out by the new rules. Tax cuts are a function of government, he said, and bills involving a wide range of industries that may have an even greater effect on the state budget were not mentioned in the rules.

“Eighteen percent of Oklahomans are uninsured,” said Lamb. “That’s too high. It’s not a bad policy to take a step back” and carefully consider proposals that would affect the cost of health insurance, Lamb said.

“Just as impact studies are required for any tax increase or reduction, it is only fair that those empowered with mandating consumer expenses know what the impact of their actions will be,” Lamb said later. “We take very seriously the business of expending dollars, be they public or private dollars, and their impact on the people who put us in this position, the citizens of our state.”

Senate Minority Leader Charlie Laster, D-Shawnee, said Tuesday afternoon the rule changes institutionalize what he characterized as Senate Republicans’ love for the insurance industry.
“I do not believe there is any other legislative chamber in the country that writes into their rules a provision protecting specific industries, much less an industry as powerful as insurance companies,” said Laster. “We should be embarrassed that Republicans chose to protect their friends in the insurance industry over the need for Oklahomans to have access to affordable health care.”

Coffee said the rules require lawmakers to file substitute bills earlier in the process, allowing members more time to review proposed changes to legislation. Senators’ votes in committee will for the first time be published in the Senate Journal. The new rules allow the Senate to meet away from the Capitol building in case of a natural disaster or other emergency situation.
State Sen. Susan Paddack, D-Ada, asked members to postpone voting on the rules, which she said were distributed after 4 p.m. on the previous day. The Republican leadership dismissed Paddack’s request and Laster’s proposal to reinstitute the rules as they were in 2005. Laster’s proposal would have subjected the Senate Democrat minority to the same rules that had been imposed on Republicans when the two parties’ positions were reversed.

The rules as adopted Tuesday grant new authority to the presiding officer to allow other senators to speak in the Senate Chamber only after being assured in advance of what that senator plans to do or say once recognized. The rule changes even allow the floor leader to interrupt when another senator has the floor.

Other changes in the rules delete the requirement that bills be considered four times by the Senate, which appears to allow some bills to pass through the chamber just once. No one may distribute information at committee meetings without first getting the chairman’s approval. The secretary of the Senate, former Senate Republican spokesman Paul Zirax, is granted the authority to correct any nonsubstantive errors in language of any bill, provided the changes are printed in the Senate Journal.

While the former rule allows only present and former legislators, governors and lieutenant governors on the floor of the Senate Chamber during session, the rule was changed to allow spouses, children and grandchildren of Senate members on the floor while the Senate’s business is under way. Male members are now required to wear slacks or trousers in addition to the coat and tie required by the former rule.

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