Coffee bills advance workers comp, education agendas

CapitolBeatOK Staff Report

Published: 10-Mar-2010

SB 1973, a comprehensive worker’s compensation reform bill advanced by Senate President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee, has passed the state Senate. A cluster of education reform measures boosted by the Oklahoma City Republican also gained strong support in the upper chamber.

Among other provisions, the workers comp measure includes these provisions:  

•                Decreases the number of Worker’s Comp Court judges from 10 to 8;

•                Increases terms of judges from six years to eight years, limiting to one term;

•                Qualifies current judges for reappointment to one eight-year term;

•                Creates and defines the position of Medical Director” of the Worker’s Comp Court;

•                Defines “major cause”; and

•                Exempts employers from liability for injuries arising outside the course of employment.

In a release sent to CapitolBeatOK, Coffee said, “These reforms are vital to ensuring the economic viability of Oklahoma business – both large and small. With the reforms outlined in this legislation, Oklahoma’s Worker’s Compensation system will be more fair, equitable and efficient.”

Coffee continued, “Over the past decade, we’ve seen claims reduced statewide, but awards have increased exponentially, causing unreasonable hardships on employers and workers both. This bill is the product of hours of discussions with all stakeholders in this issue, from business to the medical and legal communities. … This reform will be a big step toward making Oklahoma more business-friendly, while protecting the rights of injured workers.”

Also gaining passage in the Legislature’s upper chamber were Coffee’s three education reform measures. Senate Bills 1862, 2033 and 2083 each gained bipartisan support.

Students and parents in Oklahoma’s two largest cities will see the expansion of school choices with S.B. 1862

This legislation grants the mayors of the state’s two largest cities chartering authority, and removes caps on charter schools. Coffee says charters will allow Oklahoma students to benefit from additional education options and success in academic performance, moving the education system forward.

“Today we moved one step closer to seeing the expansion of educational opportunities to Oklahoma students,” said Coffee. “Charter schools will provide yet another avenue that will help the next generation have a successful learning experience and be prepared to compete globally.”

Provisions of SB 1862 would:

•                Allow municipalities with a population of 300,000 or more to sponsor/authorize charter schools;

•                Remove caps on the number of charter schools;

•                Allowing existing charter schools to participate in school board bond Elections,

•                Mandate the State Department of Education and the Department of Central Services publish a list of all vacant buildings owned by the state or school districts that may be suitable for charter schools, as is being done in Arizona, Delaware and South Carolina;

•                Allow Native American tribes to authorize and sponsor charter schools;

S/B. 2033 allows school districts to institute a performance pay program. School districts may implement incentive pay plans for teachers, principals, and administrators who effectively increase achievement growth in their students and school. Also S.B. 2083, which funds the performance pay program, passed the Senate. The measures now head to the state House.

In other education news, House Bill 2753, by Rep. Lee Denney, deletes the limit numerical limit on new charters that in any given year.

Denney, a Cushing Republican, said, “High standards will remain in place as we expand out state’s public school offerings. We can’t be so scared of change that we miss an opportunity to be innovative.”

Among other provisions, the legislation restricts charter school establishment to districts of at least 5,000 average daily membership and in counties with more than 500,000 in population except when a district has a school site on the state’s school improvement list.

In a statement sent to CapitolBeatOK, House Speaker Chris Benge of Tulsa said, “Our students are expected to compete on a higher level than ever before, and this legislation would encourage innovation in the classroom in an effort to improve student achievement. This change would also have the added benefit of improving our state’s position in competing for Race to the Top funds.”

The bill passed the House 63-37 and now moves to the Senate.

(NOTE: Editor Patrick B. McGuigan contributed to this report.)