ANALYSIS: Business Bills Omitted from the 2015 RIED List

OKLAHOMA CITY – In its annual scorecard published Sunday, the “impartial” Research Institute for Economic Development (RIED) graded all state lawmakers on their performance during the 2015 regular session of the Oklahoma Legislature.

The legislators were rated by the “non-partisan” RIED according to their votes on specific pieces of legislation – all of which were sponsored by Republicans.

A dozen House members – all of whom are Republicans – received perfect scores of 100, and 27 other House members – again, all Republicans – received grades ranging from 90 to 96.

As for House Democrats, 16 flunked the RIED test and 12 passed. The highest grade received by a Democrat was 84.

The bills on which RIED focused its attention were identified, but the particular votes on each of those measures were not – which is significant when you consider that the House Chief Clerk’s Office counted 878 recorded votes on the House floor during the 2015 regular legislative session.

RIED based its evaluations on 21 bills (nine from the House and 12 from the Senate), all of which were introduced by Republican Representatives and Senators.

Just to provide some balance to this discussion, following is a list of 19 business-related bills which House Democrats filed this year that were overlooked or ignored by RIED.

Minimum Wage

House Bill 1262 by Rep. Shane Stone, D-Oklahoma City, and HB 1343 by Rep. Jason Dunnington, D-Oklahoma City, would have repealed the legislative preemption authority over minimum wage issues in this state. Senate Bill 1023 enacted last year prohibits a municipality or subdivision from establishing a mandatory minimum wage rate, or a minimum number of vacation or sick days, which an employer can be required to pay or grant employees.

Those two heretical measures were filed away under lock and key in separate House committees.

House Bill 1344, also by Dunnington, would have raised the minimum wage in Oklahoma to $10.10 per hour next Jan. 1.

That bill died in the Economic Development, Commerce, and Real Estate Committee.

A related proposal, House Bill 1543 by Rep. Mike Shelton, D-Oklahoma City, would have mandated that employers whose workers’ wages are supplemented by tips must pay their employees a minimum salary of at least $3.50 per hour starting Jan. 1, 2016, and $4.25 per hour effective Jan. 1, 2017.

That bill was sent to die in the House Committee on Economic Development, Commerce and Real Estate.

The federal minimum wage rate of $7.25 per hour, which has been adopted by Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas plus about a dozen other states, was established six years ago, in July 2009. (In neighboring Arkansas, the minimum will increase from $7.50/hour to $8 effective Jan. 1, 2016, and to $8.50 effective Jan. 1, 2017. The minimum rate in New Mexico is $7.50/hour; in Missouri, $7.65/hour; in Colorado, $8.23/hour.)

Nearly half of working-aged impoverished Oklahomans (47.8%) worked full- or part-time in 2013.

According to the Oklahoma Policy Institute, Oklahoma’s overall poverty rate is approximately 17%; roughly two-thirds of a million Oklahomans live below the poverty line. In 2013 the child poverty rate in this state was 23.5%. Oklahoma’s poverty rate is consistently higher than the national average. The overall poverty rate ranked 18th among the states, and child poverty ranked 14th, in 2013.

Health Care

In the field of health care, House Bill 1342 by Rep. Jason Dunnington, D-Oklahoma City, would have created a task force to study caregiver insurance.

The panel would have performed an examination of “compensation for the wage penalties sustained by any individual who is unable to work due to the employee’s own sickness or injury, the sickness or injury of a family member, or the birth, adoption or foster care placement of a new child.”

The task force would have included representatives of the state Labor Department, the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission, the State Health Department, the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, and five political appointees of the Legislature and the governor.

H.B. 1342 was snuffed out in the Rules Committee.

House Bill 1327 by Rep. Richard Morrissette, D-OKC, proposed to improve staffing ratios at nursing facilities. 

The House GOP leadership left that measure to languish on general order, never bringing it to a vote.

House Bill 1356 by Rep. Brian Renegar, D-McAlester, would have required every Medicare home agency to adopt a random drug testing policy for its employees. That idea died in the Public Health Committee.

Insurance carriers would have been directed by House Bill 1336 to provide coverage for the diagnosis and treatment of autistic disorders. “Insurers pay for Viagra but not for autism medications,” said Rep. James Lockhart, D-Heavener, author of the proposal. “That’s nuts.” 

HB 1336 was never considered by the Insurance Committee.

Earthquake Insurance

House Bill 1571 by Rep. Cory Williams, D-Stillwater, would have required all residential property insurance policies issued new or renewed on or after Nov. 1 to offer coverage for “loss caused by the peril of earthquake.” The coverage would be optional, but carriers would be compelled to notify their customers of its availability.

A related measure, House Bill 1866 by Rep. Mike Shelton, D-OKC, would have created the Earthquake Insurance Act of 2015.

Both proposals were prompted by the fact that the U.S. Geological Survey recorded 5,417 earthquakes in Oklahoma last year, of which 585 registered magnitude 3 or greater intensity.

H.B. 1571 was sent to the House Committee on Insurance, where it was promptly tossed into a closet. H.B. 1866 was routed to House Rules Committee, a legislative graveyard where it was buried.

Oil/Gas Production Issues

Williams also introduced House Bill 1576, a proposal to offer energy producers a tax credit for disposing of their waste water in some acceptable manner other than injecting it underground. Various studies have linked the recent spate of tremors in Oklahoma to the injection of waste water deep into underground formations, thereby lubricating faults.

Dr. Kyle Murray of the Oklahoma Geological Survey, after poring over Corporation Commission records, reported that in 2011 saltwater disposal wells in Oklahoma accepted 891.9 million barrels of waste water. Since a barrel is 42 gallons, that means almost 37.5 billion gallons of fluid were injected underground that year.

Corporation Commission ledgers indicate 1.088 billion barrels of wastewater (45.7 billion gallons) from oil and gas production were pumped underground into disposal wells in 2012. And 1.1 billion barrels of oilpatch fluids (46.2 billion gallons) were pumped into disposal wells in 2013.

H.B. 1576 was promptly assigned to the House Rules Committee graveyard.

Rep. Ed Cannaday, D-Porum, proposed the imposition of setbacks on oil/gas wells drilled near homes or domestic wells.

H.B. 1107 would have prohibited the well-bore of a vertically or horizontally drilled oil or gas well within a radius of 500 feet from “any occupied structure” or 300 feet of “any producing freshwater well.” It would have prohibited a “fracked” well from being established within a radius of 2,000 feet of any occupied structure or any producing freshwater wells.

It also would have prohibited siting an oil or brine storage tank, or compressors, heaters, separators, etc., within a radius of 100 feet of any occupied structure.

H.B. 1107 died in the Environmental Law Committee without ever being debated.

Under existing state law, there is no minimum distance for drilling equipment or energy production wells to be set back from any habitable structure.

However, state law requires structures to be sited a minimum distance from any drilling operation: no closer than 125 feet of the well-bore of an active well, or 50 feet from the center of any surface equipment necessary for the operation of an active well, including oil storage and brine storage tanks.

Senate Bill 809 by Senate President Pro Tempore Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa and House Speaker Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview, allows a municipality or other political subdivision to enact certain rules related to oil and gas operations so long as they are consistent with rules of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission and Title 52 of the Oklahoma Statutes; these include road use provisions, noise requirements, and setback and fencing requirements. However, a municipality such as Stillwater or Tulsa or McAlester may not prohibit or ban any oil and gas operations, and all other oil and gas regulation is made the exclusive jurisdiction of the Corporation Commission.

That measure was approved in both chambers of the Legislature in split votes (64-32 House, 33-13 Senate) and was signed by the governor on April 27.

Controlling Invasive Red Cedar

Morrissette also filed House Bill 1076, which would direct the state Corrections Department to create a Cedar Control Project designed to promote rehabilitation of convicted felons by using inmates to harvest Eastern Red cedar on public and private land throughout Oklahoma.

Eastern red cedar is an invasive species of evergreen that has spread across millions of acres in all but a handful of Oklahoma’s 77 counties; the tree is a fire hazard, siphons off freshwater and overruns pastures, choking out wildlife habitat.

H.B. 1076 has been sitting on general order in the House, awaiting a vote, since Feb. 18.

Morrissette has been pushing the cedar control project for eight years, to no avail.

Political Issues

House Bill 1056 by Rep. David Perryman would create a Shareholders Bill of Rights, to give shareholders control over political contributions from corporations.

“If campaign and ethics laws cannot limit the amount of money that a corporation can pour into a political campaign, then its shareholders should be able to,” asserted Perryman, D-Chickasha. “After all, the money in a corporate treasury belongs to the shareholders.”

That measure was referred Feb. 3 to the House Committee on Business, Labor and Retirement Laws, never to be heard from again.

House Bill 1038 by Perryman would have modified the state Telemarketer Restriction Act, by abolishing the regulatory exemption of telephone calls placed for “solicitation of funds, support or opposition to a political candidate, cause or organization”.

That proposal was assigned to the House Committee on Judiciary and Civil Procedure, where it was shelved.

Promoting Entrepreneurs

House Bill 2040 by Rep. George Young Sr., D-Oklahoma City, would have encouraged – urged, not mandated – the State Regents for Higher Education to financially support entrepreneurship “with special emphasis upon providing such support to minority communities in the state.”

That measure has been sitting on general order in the House since Feb. 19.

Regulating ‘Strip Clubs’

House Bill 1607 by Rep. Ben Sherrer, D-Chouteau, would have banned any “adult cabaret” in an unincorporated area not subject to county-wide zoning, if that establishment were to be located within 2,000 feet of any building “primarily and regularly used for worship services and religious activities,” land used “for residential purposes,” or any public highway.

The bill defined “adult cabaret” to mean a nightclub, bar, restaurant or similar establishment in which “persons appear in a state of nudity in the performance of their duties.”

The measure was prompted by construction of an all-nude strip club that opened on the Mayes County side of the 
Mayes/Rogers county line, near one of Oklahoma’s largest Amish communities.

House Bill 1607 narrowly cleared the House, 53-37, then died in a Senate committee.

Coping with Propane Price Spikes

House Bill 1332 by Rep. James Lockhart would have decreed that if an increase in the wholesale price of propane equaled or surpassed 15% during any 10-day period, wholesalers would have to allow retailers at least 30 days to pay for their propane deliveries.

That bill passed the Utilities Committee, then languished on general order in the House.

Genetically Modified Food/Seed

House Bill 1370 by Rep. Claudia Griffith, D-Norman, would have mandated that any genetically engineered food or seed stock offered for retail sale in Oklahoma would have to be clearly identified as “Produced with Genetic Engineering.” 

That bill died in the Rules Committee.