Okla. senators unveil safety, transportation, energy and reform bills

Oklahoma state Senate Republicans have released a multi-tiered agenda focused on Public Safety and Transportation issues. Nine members of the 26-member majority in the upper chamber unveiled a broad outline, and some details, of their caucus agenda. Leading the process were President Pro Temp Glenn Coffee and Majority Leader Todd Lamb.

Lamb, an Edmond Republican, said the caucus agrees that in the midst of unprecedented fiscal challenges, “there are core functions of government that must be maintained. Public safety and transportation infrastructure are certainly two of those areas.” Coffee, of Oklahoma City, said “a safe and efficient transportation system” is fundamental so the state “will be prepared to grow when the hard times end.”

Republican leaders took issue with recent actions in Congress and the Obama administration, contending skewed priorities could impair funding for security and infrastructure. Lamb faulted a Senate health care provision to spread Nebraska’s share of Medicaid expansion to the other states while holding Cornhuskers free of fiscal impact. Coffee said it was wrong for Oklahomans to pay “for the special deals made for selected states,” a reference to Nebraska and to a provision benefiting only Louisiana.

Sen. Lamb plans a renewed push to combat human trafficking, particularly exploitation of women and children. His vehicle will be Senate Bill 956. Lamb told reporters, “Human trafficking is the second largest criminal activity in the world.” He noted that Oklahoma’s location makes the Sooner State a key battleground for authorities accustomed to combating the trafficking plague in states like New York and California.

In the area of Corrections, Coffee said he and House Speaker Chris Benge of Tulsa have continued discussions with Gov. Brad Henry on ways to sustain prison funding in the midst of unprecedented fiscal pressures. He said protection of the innocent, and therefore incarceration of the guilty, is “the first priority of government.” Coffee said he and his colleagues want to “avoid furloughs of state troopers” and to maintain public safety needs.

In response to a question from CapitolBeatOK, Coffee said members of the Senate support involvement of faith-based groups to impact rates of recidivism among those who are or have been in prisons. Although legislation to impact this area are not in this year’s legislative hopper, “those efforts will continue.”

Sen. Coffee said members of the caucus are frustrated over historic problems in the state Medical Examiner’s office, which lost national accreditation last year. Coffee predicted improvement in the ME’s status over the coming year.

Joining the discussion were other Republicans who serve as chairmen of committee in areas covered at the Jan. 21 session, including Cliff Branan of Edmond, Don Barrington of Lawton, Anthony Sykes of Moore, Brian Bingman of Sapulpa, Steve Russell of Oklahoma City, Ron Justice of Chickasha and Brian Crain of Tulsa.

Each senator had a few minutes to focus on his priorities. Bingman promised continued efforts to improve 911 emergency service in rural areas, “something many in urban areas take for granted.” The efficiency of emergency personnel in the cities is “not the case for many thousands of Oklahomans” living in rural and remote areas.

Bingman reported that many elderly citizens are at risk from slow response times. In related discussion, the Republican leaders pledged continued efforts to complete the interoperable communications system to support public safety operations.

Sen. Branan recounted work with U.S. Rep. Mary Fallin, a fellow Republican, and with congressional Democrats as he boosts continued funding for the Interstate-40 Crosstown redo, the largest and most expensive road building project now under way in Oklahoma.

Sen. Russell has taken the lead on matters relating to protection of Second Amendment rights for law-abiding gun owners. He criticized bureaucratic actions he says have resulted in limits on “concealed carry” rights.

Under one of Sen. Russell’s new bills, citizens could apply for permits in any county without encountering “judgment calls and delays” he believes have frustrated exercise of the right to bear arms. He reported an average application processing of 45 days in Pennsylvania, as compared to Oklahoma’s 90 days. Russell is also advancing Senate Bill 1965, allowing young hunters to purchase lifetime hunting and fishing licenses over a period of three years.

This week’s Senate Republican encounter with the Capitol press corps was the second in a three-part series in which leaders of the upper chamber are laying out in some detail an agenda for the upcoming legislative session.

At the first meeting, Coffee said the GOP caucus “is united in its desire to bring a more efficient and productive state government to the people of Oklahoma.” In economic development, energy and government reform, Republicans unveiled a drive to create an office of accountability and innovation as a step toward elimination of waste, and another measure for comprehensive workers compensation reform.

Majority Leader Lamb, who chaired the “agenda committee” for Republicans, looked back with satisfaction on last year’s session, pointing to “comprehensive lawsuit reform, ensuring qualify medical care for rural Oklahomans through the OSU Medical Center, education reform, public safety improvements and many other positive developments.”

Republicans in the upper chamber say they will continue to press for lower taxes, less regulation, limits on the growth of government and restraint on property tax increases. Specific bills will promote an expanded (to include supplies) back-to-school sales tax holiday, promotion of the state energy business and protection of water purity.

To a large extent, the ongoing state revenue crunch is defining the politics of 2010 in the Legislature and throughout state government. 

President Pro Temp Coffee has frequently said he considers the revenue shortfall a serious challenge, but an opportunity to “right- size” state government. Multiple analysts across the political spectrum have come to agreement on the likelihood of comparatively low state revenues until 2012 or perhaps beyond.