GOP legislative leaders optimistic as 2012 session takes shape

The conservative leadership of the Oklahoma legislature assessed the third week of work positively in a session with state Capitol reporters. Issues discussed included defeat of a prescription mandate, renewal of stipends for nationally certified teachers, depressed natural gas prices, a state Capitol bond repair proposal, and the Justice Reform Initiative. 

The stage has been set for a busy deadline week, when legislation must advance or be killed for this session. 

Discussion with both Senate President Pro Temp Brian Bingman and Speaker of the House Kris Steele focused on a contentious debate over proposed restrictions on pseudoepherdrine, a popular allergy-fighting medicine. Last Monday (February 20), several District Attorneys held a Capitol press conference to press for a ban on over-the-counter sales of the tablet form of the medicine. 

The prosecutors wanted to require prescriptions to access the tablets, but fierce opposition emerged from both consumers and the medical community, including doctors and elements of the drug industry. 
In the end, proposals for new restrictions on access to pseudoepherdrine tablets were killed in both chambers, yet controversy continues.

Senator Bingman said, “This is a tough issue. Meth labs are prevalent in the northeast part of the state, and that drives some of the concern there.” Bingman complimented his colleague, Sen. Kim David of Porter for her passionate advocacy of the prescription mandate.

However, he said, “There are other ways to address this issue. It’s a long-term problem that can’t be fixed overnight.” Like other critics of the proposed legislation, Bingman believes a “real-time tracking” proposal was a better approach.

Bingman agreed that involvement of what one reporter called “the drug lobby” might have contributed to defeat of the DA’s proposal, but said the measure lost for a multitude of reasons. Lobbyists “might have had some effect. A problem for the advocates of the proposal to put pseudoepherdine behind prescription counters is the effect it would have on people needing the drug for the right reason, but having to go their doctor to get a prescription.”

In a later session with reporters, Speaker Steele related that after an initial version of the prescription mandate passed last year, “there were a lot of questions from members.” Steele switched committee assignments of the measure, and the bill did not advance. He said, “It is likely not to receive a hearing.” Steele and Bingman each stressed their respect for DAs on the “front line” of law enforcement, but said they could not agree with the prescription requirement.

Both leaders said a measure to require presidential candidates to present documentation of birth, submitted by state Sen. Ralph Shortey, an Oklahoma City Republican, would be heard but each said the measure is not a caucus priority. 

Bingman expressed support for a proposal from Senator John Ford of Bartlesville to restore $5,000 annual stipends to National Board Certifified Teachers (NCBT), an item identified as a priority for his colleague in the Republican caucus. Steele later said the proposal “has a chance” in the House. He explained, “There is interest in funding those [teachers] who are currently in the pipeline.” 

Despite a relatively rosy picture in the form of continued growth in state tax revenues, Bingman reiterated concern about the impact low natural gas prices are having on the state’s receipts. While oil prices remain strong, natural gas prices are extremely low. Oil and gas, he observed, are commodities, meaning, “Prices can escalate or decline.”

In discussion of possible bond proposals, Pro Temp Bingman, a Sapulpa Republican, said discussion of a bond to finance repairs to the state Capitol Building “is gaining momentum. What’s needed for repairs is not a small number. There’s a lot of work to be done in this old building, plumbing, electric, heat and air.”

He continued, “We have a great bond rating right now . There is probably not a better time to undertake that kind of spending than right now. Part of what we will look at is can it be done in phases or would it save money to do it all at once?” He stressed it would not be feasible to move the Legislature out of the Capitol building during legislative session, a practical consideration that might limit flexibility in addressing the issue.

Speaker Steele said the Capitol bond “is the proposal with the most interest. We are facing some issues. I think the cost will be higher than $50 million,” the amount Governor Fallin had suggested in her State of the State address. The speaker said analysts are telling him the sum is “more like $110 to $160 million.”

In his discussion with reporters, Speaker Steele expressed great optimism for the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) on which he has worked for several years. Steele’s legislation addressing all points developed by a working group will be introduced this coming week. That panel studied criminal justice and incarceration issues in collaboration with the Council of State Governments (CSG). 

The measure will begin its journey through the Legislature in the Appropriations and Budget Committee on Monday, the Shawnee Republican said. In response to a question from CapitolBeatOK, Steele said he believes “more than ever” that the JRI shift in resources could save Oklahoma perhaps $150 million over the next decade. 

Steele also told reporters the comprehensive legislative examination of challenges facing the Department of Human Services will yield five or six bills. He said, “these are not shell bills — they will include actual language — but they are still works in progress. I can say we are focusing on governance structure and organization of the agency. We also want to make sure that the people providing the services are actually taken care of.”

Steele’s office has announced a press conference for 10 a.m. Monday (February 27), at which police chiefs, district attorneys, sheriffs and correctional officers will join members of the JRI working group to endorse House Bill 3052, the vehicle for this year’s JRI reforms. 

Concerning open carry proposals advanced by Second Amendment advocates, Steele reiterated his support “with reasonable restrictions. I would like to see some provisions that provide grounds rules, similar to the ground rules for concealed carry permits.”