Coffee chides Edmondson, touts progress after session’s 12th week
By Patrick B. McGuigan
In his weekly meeting with reporters at the state Capitol, Republican Senate President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee said he and House Speaker Chris Benge are close to figuring out areas of agreement and disagreement with Governor Brad Henry, a Democrat, as the annual law-making session enters the home stretch.
At his morning briefing, Senator Coffee reiterated his disappointment with Attorney General Drew Edmondson’s decision against joining state challenges to the new federal health care bill.
“It is obvious that the attorney general is not sympathetic to this cause,” he said. For that reason, legislators plan to file their own lawsuit. Coffee said, “We are seeking an attorney who will vigorously defend the interests of Oklahoma and of his clients. We are of course seeking was to keep the costs low. This includes the use of Senate staff to prepare analysis. Beyond that we are looking for pro bono counsel.”
Coffee also answered questions on the health care theme, telling the assembled journalists he did not believe the Legislature was overstepping its bounds by undertaking the legal challenge: “It’s too bad the attorney general is playing gubernatorial primary politics with such an important issue.
“We will do everything we can to keep the costs down on this. At a minimum, as the HCFA has said, this bill will cost the state of Oklahoma a t least $95 million a year. That doesn’t include the hundreds of millions it will cost businesses in the state.
“The bill provides some benefits to individuals, but in the total picture the costs are almost immeasurable. The cost to government, in a careful estimate, is a least $1 billion in a decade or so. And then you have billions of dollars in costs to the private sector, to Oklahomans.”
The Senate processed 72 bills this week, and put 312 through the system “during this deadline cycle. “It was a week of hard work and productive work,” Coffee said. He touted the fact that the upper chamber saved taxpayers about $5,300 by avoiding a Thursday work day.
The Senate is clearly headed toward after-session budget cuts in staffing. Coffee said, “We have more than 20 interested in taking part in voluntary buyouts (VBOs). Those decisions help a lot. But that does not eliminate the need for furloughs, unfortunately.”
Smiling as he played on a turn of phrase used earlier in the week by Treasurer Scott Meacham, Coffee told CapitolBeatOK, “We know what we’re arguing about” with Governor Henry. He continued, “We are focused on revenue issues. And we are still researching a list of possible revenue enhancements. We are, with the governor, looking at a possible moratorium on tax credits and incentives, or perhaps cutting the incentives by some amount, a designated percentage. We are also studying a moratorium on specific tax credits.”
Coffee explained further, “I’d say that only the Quality Jobs Program incentives are the area that is the most protected in the process we’re in right now. It’s not likely there will be big changes in the qualify jobs.” He said he did not think it would be wise to delay an increase in the standard deduction: “I think that would probably the equivalent of a tax increase, so that the provisions of State Question 640 would probably come into play.”
Coffee disputed contentions that there are too many state laws facing legal challenges: “I have heard many wise Senators say during my time up here that it is our job to propose laws and pass or defeat them, and that it is the job of the courts to determine if those laws are in fact constitutional.” Renewing his criticism of the attorney general, Coffee said, “The poultry litigation cost a lot of money, I’m not sure how much. It was years of litigation and lots of man hours of legal work.”
Commenting on the continued advance of Republican bills supporting expansion of charter schools in the state, Coffee said he did not think the support of President Barack Obama for such schools had boosted the cause in the Sooner State: “I think it’s virtually certain that he has hurt the measure in Oklahoma. I’d observe that I’ve worked to support charter schools in Oklahoma since before President Obama was a state Senator in Illinois.”
Coffee added, “Certainly Oklahoma needs the diversity that this approach can bring. I think it is significant that Oklahomans, including Rep. Jabar Shumate and Sen. Judy Eason McIntyre, have been supportive of this reform.” Shumate and Eason McIntyre are black Democrats from Tulsa. Coffee is a Republican from Oklahoma City.
The Republican Senate leader said Governor Brad Henry had not been involved in workers’ compensation reform discussions, but added, “I am sure that is about to start happening.”