MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

May 25, 2013

Legislature finishes session one week early


Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma lawmakers adjourned the 2013 Legislature on Friday one week earlier than required, wrapping up a session that saw Gov. Mary Fallin advance her agenda to reduce taxes and overhaul the state workers' compensation system.

The presiding officer in the House dropped the gavel at 7:33 p.m. and adjourned Sine Die, a Latin phrase that literally means "without day." The Senate had adjourned at 12:23 p.m.

By adjourning a week early, the Legislature saved about $140,000 in expenses for lawmakers and other session costs.

In response to the deadly twister that tore through the Oklahoma City area on Monday, the House and Senate on Friday passed a bill to provide tax breaks to property and vehicle owners who suffered losses from the storm. Fallin indicated she would sign the measure. The Republican governor also signed a measure on Friday approved unanimously by the House and Senate to tap $45 million from the state's Rainy Day Fund to help communities recover from tornado damage. The bill allows the state to use the money to match federal disaster funds and help cities and towns pay for storm-related costs.

"We did have a very productive legislative session, and we are ending on a high note," Fallin said. "Thank goodness we have a nice, historic high in the savings account."

The session was a successful one for Fallin, who got many of the priorities she outlined in her State of the State address to lawmakers in February, including an income tax cut that has been a priority of hers since she was elected in 2010. The tax cut will drop the state's top personal income tax rate from 5.25 percent to 5 percent, beginning Jan. 1, 2015, with a second cut to 4.85 percent scheduled to take effect in 2016 if state revenues increase enough to pay for it.

Several of the funding priorities outlined in Fallin's executive budget also were included in an agreement reached with leaders of the Republican-controlled House and Senate on a $7.1 billion state budget, including increased spending on mental health programs, child welfare services and health care.

"I felt really good about this session," Fallin said. "We got our priorities done this year. We proposed different things in our budget that I was very pleased that we were able to get funding for."

Fallin praised the Legislature's passage of a major overhaul of the state's workers' compensation system, saying the conversion from a court system to an administrative one will benefit businesses by lowering workers' compensation insurance premiums, but Democrats and those who represent injured workers argue those savings will come at the expense of employees injured on the job.

But not all of Fallin's proposals came to fruition. A proposal she supported to allow cities and towns to enact stricter smoking bans than currently exist in state law was shot down early in the session, prompting Fallin to announce plans to spearhead a signature drive to circumvent the Legislature and place an anti-smoking initiative on the ballot.

Fallin also expressed disappointment that a plan to consolidate the administrative operations of the state's pension systems failed to get traction in the waning days of the Legislature.

Democrats complained that while the 2013 session was a good one for some businesses and wealthy individuals, there wasn't much to benefit the average working Oklahoman. The Legislature's failure to approve pay hikes for teachers and other state workers, while at the same time passing tax cuts that disproportionately benefit wealthy taxpayers, was a disappointment, said House Democratic Leader Rep. Scott Inman

"There are major losers in this legislative session," said Inman, D-Del City. "If you're a retiree in Oklahoma, it's been a bad session. If you're a teacher it's been a bad session. If you're a trooper or a DOC employee, it's been a bad session."

Democratic and Republican leaders in the Senate chose not to comment on the 2013 session, saying they wanted to remain focused on supporting Oklahomans affected by this week's storms.

"Politics as usual seems so trivial in this moment," Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman said in a statement. "For today, the members of the Senate want to set aside the traditional end-of-session critique, and instead, direct our thoughts and prayers to our fellow Oklahomans."

House Speaker T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, also declined to speak to reporters after concluding his first legislative session as the leader of the House.

Divisions between GOP leaders in the House and Senate emerged early in the session when the two sides disagreed over how the tax cut should be implemented. Bingman wanted to delay the tax cut until 2015, while Shannon pushed for an immediate reduction to take place Jan. 1.

Shannon also was accused by Inman of "political gamesmanship" after the House approved a measure earlier this week to give Oklahoma Highway Patrol troopers a pay raise, even though there was no agreement with Bingman and Fallin to support the pay hike.

Fallin has rebuffed calls for raises for state workers, opting instead to await the results of a detailed compensation study of state employees.

"I have felt that it was important to do a study of all the different classifications, because picking and choosing which state employee is more important than the other, to me just didn't seem fair," Fallin said.