Benge, Coffee to Drew: Goin’ fishin’

CapitolBeatOK Staff Report

Published: 20-Apr-2010

In a visit to the Capitol press room last Friday, Attorney General Drew Edmondson said it was time for Republicans in the Legislature to “fish or cut bait.”

Today (Tuesday, April 20) House Speaker Chris Benge and President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee told Edmondson they plan to go fishin’ – in the form of a lawsuit against the new federal health care law.

The vehicle is House Joint Resolution 1054, which has been signed out of conference committee and now includes a statutory change that would allow Oklahomans to opt-out of mandated health insurance. The resolution also authorizes the Senate President and Speaker of the House to file a lawsuit against the United States Congress, the President of the United States and the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services to prevent the provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act from taking effect.

On April 9, Attorney General Drew Edmondson announced he would not challenge the new federal law unless the Legislature compelled him to do so.

By his action, the attorney general refused to join with 19 other states who have filed against the bill. In most of those states, the attorney general is leading the litigation, but in a few other state officers (usually the governor but in one case a lieutenant governor) have taken the lead.

In a statement sent today to CapitolBeatOK, Speaker Benge said, “This issue is so important, we do not want the attorney general, who has made his position on the lawsuit well-known, to represent Oklahomans who neither want nor can afford this legislation. Our concern is that the attorney general’s effort would be lackluster, at best. We have an obligation to our citizens to challenge this unconstitutional bill, which will lead to unprecedented control of a large portion of the U.S. economy. The high taxes required in the law will be a burden that we cannot afford. The federal government does not have a good track record when it comes to estimating costs of similar programs.”

Benge is a Republican from Tulsa. Edmondson is a Democrat now seeking his party’s nomination for governor.

Benge continued, “The cost of such a lawsuit is obviously a concern given our current budget situation, but what our state can definitely not afford to do is sit on the sidelines and let this bill become law. The high taxes, record debt and loss of personal choice within the health care system will irreparably change the landscape forever. We have to challenge this law.”

Coffee, Republican leader in the upper chamber of the Legislature, commented, “The attorney general has made it abundantly clear that he wants no part of this lawsuit. Why would we want to retain an attorney to represent our case when he doesn’t believe in it?

“This is a serious attempt to challenge the constitutionality of Obamacare, and we need an attorney who will aggressively represent the case advocating on our behalf. Some will question the cost of fighting this case in federal court. But the cost will be miniscule compared to the billions of dollars this ‘reform’ will cost Oklahoma taxpayers over the coming years.”

Benge and Coffee both said every effort will be taken to keep costs down, including the possibility of using House and Senate legal staff and resources or pro bono opportunities.

“This statutory change allows us to immediately act against this legislation, which will have devastating effects on our state if it is fully implemented,” said Rep. Mike Ritze, one of two medical doctors in the Legislature and House author of the resolution. Dr. Ritze has argued the new law’s supporters have drastically underestimated its costs and consequences.

Ritze, a Republican from Broken Arrow, added, “The resolution does nothing more than give Oklahomans and employers a choice to opt-out of federally-mandated health care if they so choose without risk of fines, increased taxes or jail time.”

Sen. Randy Brogdon, the Owasso Republican who is Senate author of the resolution, concurred. “It makes no sense to have an attorney – even in his position as the state’s attorney – to join the fight against Obamacare when he, in fact, supports Obamacare,” Brogdon said. “I’m pleased with the solution we presented today, and look forward to moving ahead on the lawsuit with attorneys in whom we can have full confidence.”

The resolution is currently pending before the House.

Plans for the lawsuit by legislative leaders are the latest twist in a strong clash of visions over not only the merits of the law, but also the limits of federal powers.

NOTE: CapitolBeatOK editor Patrick B. McGuigan contributed to this report.