Oklahoma special session likely, despite opposition
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Published: 30-Jul-2013

OKLAHOMA CITY – It’s looking more and more likely lawmakers will return to the Capitol for a week or more to grapple with the recent state Supreme Court decision overturning lawsuit reform in the state. 

Earlier in July, House Speaker T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, sounded like a reluctant soldier in the Army of those supporting Gov. Mary Fallin’s push to reverse a controversial 7-2 state Supreme Court decision that ripped apart legislation enacted in 2009.  The jurists contended that omnibus legislation violated the “single-subject” provisions in the state Constitution.

However, in an interview with CapitolBeatOK Tuesday, spokesman Joe Griffin said the speaker now wants to move quickly:

“As we see growing possibility of more and more cases intended to take advantage of the present uncertainty, cases reopened because of the Supreme Court ruling, we feel there’s an increased need to take care of this issue – sooner rather than later.” 

Senate President Pro Temp Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, had worried, in an interview with Capitol reporters earlier this month, there might be a “land run” of new civil litigation filings taking advantage of the High Court’s ruling

His prophecy may be at least partially fulfilled at this point.

Oklahoma City television stations have experienced a modest surge in paid ads from trial lawyers who are focused on opportunities presented by slap-down of the law. Through last week, the state High Court had in 11 instances reversed lower court dismissals of lawsuits. Those filings might enjoy better legal prospects now that the 2009 law is null and void.

Although the 2009 legislation had bipartisan support, Democrats now appear united in opposition to a special session to restore those provisions.

House Minority Leader Scott Inman D-Del City argues tort issues are best saved for the regular session in February, and promises his caucus will try to recruit enough Republicans to defeat emergency clauses (which need 68 votes), delaying by a couple of months the effective date of any reparative measures.

Senate Minority Leader Sean Burrage, D-Claremore, wants new tort studies before the Legislature tackles reform anew. Both top Democrats decry costs that might flow from a special session – which both they and Republicans now estimate will take at least five days.

An editorial in The Oklahoman called the court’s ruling “disappointing,” but cautioned against the $30,000-a-day cost for a special session (per diem, legislative staff and mileage reimbursements). The paper concluded, “Better to take the time needed to get lawsuit reform right, and do so during the regular session.” 

Gov. Fallin got a boost, however, when the state’s second big paper, The Tulsa World, characterized a tort reform fix as “urgent.” The house editorial concluded, “The expense is small compared to the cost of doing nothing.”  

Bingman’s aide, Nathan Atkins, said the pro temp “supports the governor’s direction on this.” Sen. Bingman believes state businesses face intensifying turmoil due to federal issues like the debt ceiling and spending fights, and fallout over the lawsuit reform legislation. 

Atkins said Senate Republicans “want to do what is necessary so businesses can make sound policies so that businesses can look ahead to expansion and job growth, and so forth. It is only reasonable to fashion policy that allows businesses to have reasonable degrees of certainty about the legal lay of the land so they can plan on their costs of doing business.” 

There now appears little, if any, distance between the top three state officials. Bingman intends “to get in and get out as soon as possible, and keep the work focused.”

As for the chief executive – headed to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to assume leadership of the National Governors Association – her communications director, Alex Weintz, on Tuesday told CapitolBeatOK, “The governor is considering calling a special session and is in talks with legislative leaders about that possibility. The timing of the special session is still in question, but the topic would be lawsuit reform. She is not planning to consider any other issue.”

Previously, Weintz had told this reporter Fallin “believes it’s important for special sessions to be brief, as they do incur a cost to taxpayers.”

Fallin’s spokesman counters critics of the special session because all provisions “involve passing previously negotiated and vetted language” --  which can be handled quickly. “The same cannot be said for more complex and controversial issues, like health insurance policy, which are better left to the normal legislative calendar.”

You may contact Patrick B. McGuigan at Patrick@capitolbeatok.com and follow us on Twitter: @capitolbeatok.

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