Monday, April 27, 2009

Democrats walk off Oklahoma House floor

The Associated Press
Published: April 27, 2009

Democrats in the Oklahoma House walked out of the chamber Monday after their attempt to revive an insurance coverage mandate for autism was blocked by the House's Republican majority.

"This is totalitarian government," Rep. Joe Dorman, D-Sand Springs, said after all but a handful of the House's 40 Democrats walked off the floor following a series of parliamentary maneuvers in which Democrats attempted to revive the autism mandate known as "Nick's Law."

"We're just shocked," said House Democratic leader Danny Morgan of Prague. He said parliamentary rulings by the House's presiding officer at the time, Rep. Don Armes, R-Faxon, will make the House's Democratic minority ineffective as a political power.

"It really restricts our ability to make legislation," Morgan said. "Hopefully we'll be able to sit down and express our concerns and frustrations."

After Democrats walked out, the House voted 65-0 to send the autism provider bill to Gov. Brad Henry for his signature, with eight Democrats voting with Republicans.

The bill calls for enactment of a licensing process for national board certified behavior analysts and enhancement of existing state programs that would train doctors to diagnose and treat autism.

During a legislative study last year, lawmakers learned that a shortage of trained providers has made it difficult for families to obtain autism services, even when they have financial assistance.

Supporters of "Nick's Law" have argued that therapists will not move to the state to provide services to autistic children without a guaranteed revenue stream to pay them, like that provided by mandated health insurance coverage.

Parliamentary bickering began when Rep. Mike Brown, D-Tahlequah, made a motion to amend legislation backed by GOP leaders that is designed to increase the provider network of autism specialists in Oklahoma.

The amendment would have revived "Nick's Law," which would require private insurance companies to pay for the diagnosis and treatment of autistic children. The measure, named after an 11-year-old autistic boy from Edmond, Nick Rohde, would cap benefits at $36,000 a year.

The amendment was not considered after Rep. Dan Sullivan, R-Tulsa, said House rules prohibited it because the House Economic Development and Financial Services Committee that he chairs made a do-not-pass recommendation on Nick's Law earlier this year, effectively killing it for two full years under House rules.

Armes ruled that Brown's amendment was out of order, prompting Brown to make a motion to suspend the rule that prevented his amendment from being heard, a motion that requires a two-thirds vote of the House to prevail.

"We have suspended those rules for whatever the majority wants to do," Brown said, pointing out that GOP motions to suspend rules regarding germaneness and other parliamentary issues have been routinely passed.

But Armes said his ruling was based on the precedent of past House rulings, not House rules, and that House precedent took priority over the rules.

"We're relying on House precedent. This bill's dead," Armes said. Brown appealed the ruling of the chair, but it was upheld by the GOP majority.

"House precedent holds that final action on legislative language is in fact that, final action," Republican House Speaker Chris Benge of Tulsa said later in a statement. "The Democrats had recourse to appeal the ruling of the chair, and they lost that vote."

Dorman, a former member of the American Institute of Parliamentarians, said it marked the first time he is aware of that any legislative body had ruled that precedent superseded rules voted on by the members.

"Precedence outweighs any of our rules. We can't write a new rule and we can't suspend the rules," Dorman said. If a bad ruling by the presiding officer is placed into the House's book of precedents, then the chamber will forever be governed by that bad ruling, he said.

"That's insane," Dorman said.

"There ought to be some formula that we can look at," Morgan said. "I'm concerned about that."

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