Sunday, May 1, 2011
After a little more than 100 days in office, Gov. Mary Fallin's legislative agenda is doing very nicely, thank you.
"At the beginning of the legislative session, I outlined an agenda that will create a better business climate, bring more and better jobs to Oklahoma and reform government to make it smaller and more efficient," Fallin said in a statement to the Tulsa World. "I'm happy to say that our lawmakers have responded by sending a number of priority bills to my desk and continuing to work on other important agenda items.
"By all accounts, it looks like 2011 will be a productive and important legislative session."
Fallin's State of the State address set out 13 identifiable legislative initiatives. While she hasn't cleared the tables on all 13, and she has had to accept some compromises, a little more than midway through the legislative year she finds herself in a position most governors would envy.
The "first priority" Fallin addressed was "to balance our state budget without raising taxes."
Although the details are far from decided, there seems little doubt this will be accomplished, certainly so far as meeting the state Constitution's requirement for a balanced budget.
Serious talk surrounds only one tax increase, a moist snuff tax increase to pay incentives to rural doctors. That proposal missed a House deadline for passage last week and can't be considered until next year.
The Senate and the House have passed versions of a hospital provider fee to leverage more federal Medicaid funding, which some have said is a tax, but the legislation is styled as a fee. It has at least one obvious difference from a tax: It is voluntary.
Fallin called on the Legislature to allow a previously approved 0.25 percent reduction in the state's top income tax rate to take effect. That required no legislative action, and there was none. The tax cut will save businesses and individuals more than $100 million a year.
Fallin has been able to sign two proposals from her State of the State speech into law.
•Lawsuit reform including a "hard cap" of $250,000 on noneconomic damages: The Legislature gave Fallin a bill, but with a $350,000 cap.
•Make firing ineffective teachers easier by eliminating their trial de novo rights: Mission accomplished.
Eight other Fallin ideas are still alive in the Legislature:
•Reform workers compensation: Different versions of Senate Bill 878, which would substantially rewrite the state's workers compensation system, have passed the House and Senate.
•Consolidate the state's information technology system at a potential savings of $146 million a year: Although the savings have been called into question and some state agencies are questioning the plan, it remains alive.
•A governor's closing fund to pay for incentives for job-creating businesses: The bill has faced some legislative flak but remains alive. As yet, it comes with no money.
•Deal with the state's $16 billion pension deficit: Several pieces of pension-reform legislation are still under legislative consideration.
•Address Oklahoma's high female incarceration rate: Almost done. The House could take up a final version of a bill addressing that issue next week and send it on to Fallin.
•Restructure education spending to get more money into the classroom: Several lawmakers have claimed that goal for their proposals, but the clearest example - House Bill 2115, which would give financial incentives for small schools to share superintendents - is pending in a conference committee.
•End "social promotion" of students: Versions of the proposal have been passed by both houses. If details are worked out, a final version would go to Fallin.
•Reduce school remediation rates and more accurately track student progress: A bill to grade schools on an A-F scale has passed the House and Senate on party-line votes. Lawmakers need to work out differences between their versions before it can be sent to Fallin.
Only two pieces of the legislative platform Fallin outlined in her speech have run into significant trouble, and in both cases, she can claim at least partial success:
•Investigate state tax credits to make sure they help create jobs: A bill that would create a legislative task force to investigate the effectiveness of tax incentives remains alive. Also, the Legislature gave Fallin a tax incentive she had asked for - restoration of the Aerospace Engineer Tax Credit.
But a bill that would have phased out 20 tax incentive programs missed a House deadline for consideration this year. The bill would have ended those tax credits at the end of 2013 and could be considered next year.
•The health insurance exchange: In her speech Fallin called on lawmakers to build on Speaker of the House Kris Steele's previous legislation to create a health insurance exchange.
Fallin worked for a bill Steele wrote that would have given legal muscle to plans for using a $54 million federal grant to build an exchange. But under intense pressure from conservatives in her own party, the bill died in the state Senate and Fallin had to reject the grant - the biggest political setback of her first 100 days in office.
Fallin, Steele and Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman have since nuanced the problem with a plan to build a much smaller exchange, which would be funded mostly or perhaps completely with private money.
Even that plan hasn't been without its challenges in the Legislature but, if passed, she could count it as a partial victory and move on.
But governors' reputations aren't made by how well they have done at the beginning of May. It's the end of May - when the Legislature adjourns and the final tally for the year is taken - that matters.
Fallin is realistic about that.
"We have a lot of work to do before we reach the finish line," she said, pointing in particular to the workers compensation package and the information technology consolidation in particular.
"It's my hope that legislators continue to work diligently until we can get these and other key measures signed into law," she said.
By WAYNE GREENE World Senior Writer