BY ARNOLD HAMILTON
...So let's get this straight: The Republican-majority Oklahoma Legislature is seriously discussing a bill that could make it more difficult for regular folk to circulate initiative petitions and get them on the ballot?
The same Oklahoma Legislature that itself placed 10 of 11 referenda on last year's ballot -- most wedge issues designed to ignite turnout among constituencies that tend to favor the GOP majority?
The same Oklahoma Legislature whose Republican members for years huffed and puffed about Democrats "not trusting the voters" to decide important issues?
The same GOP majority Oklahoma Legislature that refused this year to let the voters decide whether insurance companies should be required to cover treatment for children with autism?
All you need to know about what who wields the real power at N.E. 23rd Street and North Lincoln Boulevard in Oklahoma City is this: Big insurance's deep pockets can deftly turn referenda-happy Republicans into a referenda-killing machine.
Oklahoma families crushed by the costs of uninsured treatment for their autistic children have worked vainly for several years to get relief from their lawmakers. But there hasn't been an insurance mandate since Republicans took control of the state House six years ago -- the last one ordered was for mammograms.
And before you start grinding your teeth about "mandates" or "government regulation" or "interfering with free enterprise," remember this: 1 in 100 children is now diagnosed with the malady.
This is a ticking time bomb -- for Oklahoma taxpayers. You see, children treated for autism often can become productive, taxpaying adults. If they are not treated, who do you think will most often end up paying for their adult long-term care and housing? Exactly -- the taxpayers. And the costs are likely to be enormous.
Big insurance feigns poverty, but the truth is, companies are earning record profits. Moreover, there is plenty of evidence that treating children with autism isn't burdensome for these companies that clearly care about one thing and one thing only: their bottom lines.
Already, 21 states have passed legislation that mandates some form of autism treatment for children. Oklahoma lawmakers, meanwhile, play a cost-shifting game -- protecting big insurance (among their biggest campaign donors) and leaving a mountain of future expenses to taxpayers.
Why should current legislators care? They'll be term-limited from office before the you-know-what-hits-the-fan. Future lawmakers can clean up the mess.
What's even more appalling is that Oklahomans overwhelmingly believe a mandate is warranted -- 79.5 percent in a SoonerPoll last spring. In addition, 66.6 percent of the likely voters surveyed statewide said they would favor a state ballot initiative requiring health insurance to cover the diagnosis and treatment of children with autism.
So, Democratic Rep. Mike Brown of Tahlequah introduced legislation this year that would give voters the chance to decide the issue. It looked like the perfect plan: How could the Legislature's Republican majority -- which prattles endlessly about "trusting the voters" -- not trust the voters on this issue?
Initially, Brown's HB 1624 was assigned to the House Insurance Committee. But in late February, it was shifted to the House Rules Committee -- the graveyard for legislation the speaker and powers-that-be want to kill.
Brown says the speaker told him he wanted to let last year's legislatively enacted reforms take full root before considering a statewide vote on the issue. What reforms? Lawmakers approved a measure aimed at increasing the number of health care professionals in Oklahoma with expertise in treating the malady.
It was pure window dressing -- more treatment will be available for those who can't afford it. And what is likely to become of those new autism-care professionals, trained at state taxpayer expense? Most likely will end up practicing in other states that demand insurance companies to cover treatment for autism -- states like all our neighbors: Texas, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Louisiana and Arkansas.
Brown hasn't given up. He proposed an amendment to Speaker Kris Steele's HB 2130 that addresses the duties of the Health Care for the Uninsured Board that would mandate autism coverage. It's time, Brown says, for "an honest and open debate about the lifelong consequences of failing to provide these services in crucial developmental years."
"In the end, it's not just the children but also the families who will pay for our inaction on this issue. The emotional turmoil parents face when unable to provide proper medical care for their child is unimaginable -- especially as more studies are released that prove the powerful impact early intervention can have on a child."
You can bet Republican legislative leaders will work to kill this proposal, too. But it only serves to reconfirm their venality -- big insurance mercenaries who are callous to the plight of suffering Oklahoma families and indifferent to the catastrophic costs that will be borne by Oklahoma taxpayers.
Even worse, the state Senate recently approved Senate Joint Resolution 37 that would place a referendum on the ballot aimed at making the initiative petition process even more difficult.
Currently, those seeking to place a measure on the ballot can collect signatures anywhere in the state. Most, as you might guess, focus their efforts in the state's two largest metropolitan areas -- Tulsa and Oklahoma City -- with about two-thirds of the state's population.
Sen. Mike Schulz's plan -- which would be put to a statewide vote if also approved by the House -- would amend the Constitution to require a percentage of the signatures come from each of the state's five congressional districts.
"It's simply to bring some equality to the process," the Altus Republican says.
You can't simply sit in a metro area and gather all the signatures needed to get something on the ballot."
I've long argued that lawmaking-by-initiative is a dicey business. We have representative government for a reason -- we elect and pay (handsomely) proxies to go to the Capitol, study the issues and make their best judgments while we carry out our everyday lives. If we don't like the way our representatives vote, we elect someone else.
As far as I'm concerned, 11 state questions on the ballot last year was way too many. But I find it more than a little ironic that Republicans who were responsible for placing 10 of them on the ballot in 2010 now are working to make it more difficult for non-elected officials to petition their government.
Either you trust the voters or you don't.
--(Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; okobserver.net)