, Muskogee, OK

March 16, 2007

Tort reform bill leads ‘fruitful’ week for Legislature

By Liz McMahan

Last week was very fruitful for the state Legislature, with the passage by the Senate of a tort reform bill, said Sen. Earl Garrison, D-Muskogee.

He addressed the Friday morning meeting of the Greater Muskogee Area Chamber of Commerce’s Paul Revere Legislative Affairs Committee. The breakfast was hosted by Bank of Oklahoma.

“It was a very exciting week, and we did some landmark things I’ve wanted to happen for a long time,” Garrison said.

The tort reform measure sets a timeline for handling malpractice suits against physicians instead of letting them drag out over years in the courts, Garrison said.

The measure was supported by the Oklahoma Medical Association and received full support in the Senate, he said.

He expects it to also pass the House.

A bill to increase the state’s minimum wage from $5.15 per hour failed to pass the Senate, but Garrison expects the issue to come back before them in the form of a bill from the House.

The measure would increase the minimum wage to $8.75 per hour over a period of time, he said.

Garrison also spoke about the $40 million supplemental appropriation passed by the House that will fund the shortfall in education. Last year, the legislature passed a measure giving all teachers a $3,000 raise but failed to fund the FICA taxes on the raises, leaving school districts short of money.

Compounding the problem is that lottery revenues and tax receipts on oil and gas production are down, Garrison said.

He said he expects the Senate to approve the House bill.

“I think we’re having a good session,” Garrison said. “I think we’ve done some things that are good for the folks of Oklahoma, and the bottom line is that’s what it’s all about.”

Also addressing the committee were Connie Pearson, field representative for U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma; Brianne Cormier, staff assistant for U.S. Rep. Dan Boren, D-Oklahoma; and Mike Miller, communications officer for the Cherokee Nation.

Pearson said Coburn continues to look for wasteful spending. Last year, he found $200 million in duplicated and overpayments.

Coburn recently opposed an ethics bill before the Senate. She quoted him as having said there was something wrong with legislation that prohibited buying officials a $20 meal but allowed the legislators to give out $20 million earmarks.

Cormier said Boren’s trip to Iraq and a military hospital in Germany last week gave him more insight into the war. He continues to oppose sending more troops to Iraq but also opposes establishing a timeline for withdrawing military presence there.

Miller took advantage of Friday’s forum to brag a bit on the Sequoyah High School girls state basketball championship.

He said all Sequoyah students and all basketball team members are Native Americans, but to look at them, they appear to be a mix of Native Americans, African Americans and Caucasians. But, each of them has a Native American ancestor.

He used that point to make one about the tribe’s recent vote to not allow Cherokee freedmen to have full voting rights in the tribe.

Their ancestors were allowed to sign Dawes Commission rolls in the late 1800s, but as freedmen, not as having Native American blood, he said.

“The largest piece of this controversy is coming from outside the Cherokee Nation and from outside northeastern Oklahoma — from New York City, from Los Angeles, from Washington D.C.,” he said.

They don’t know the full story and see the freedman vote as an exclusionary policy “and they don’t want the facts to get in the way.”