A bill that would overhaul Oklahoma's workers' compensation court and replace it with an administrative system that sped through the Senate will be slowed down in the House of Representatives for a closer look, House Speaker T.W. Shannon said.
Shannon, R-Lawton, said he generally supports the measure, but the House will take its time with Senate Bill 1062 to look at how the bill would reduce compensation benefits available to injured workers.
“Our main concern is that injured workers are not penalized and that the company that provides the benefits is able to do so in an affordable manner and that it doesn't become a hindrance to doing business in Oklahoma,” Shannon said. “I haven't seen the Senate bill to know exactly, but I think I like a lot of what I've heard about it. What I like about it the most is that it goes to an administrative system.”
SB 1062, a 260-page bill, was unveiled nearly two weeks ago by Senate leaders. A Senate committee passed it 8-2 and last week the Senate passed it 34-12.
“We'll have a lot more time to vet the bill than happened in the Senate,” Shannon said. “That will give us a lot more opportunities to make it even stronger.
“We'll get it over to the House,” he said. “We'll make some modifications to it and hopefully make it an even stronger workers' compensation bill.”
If changes are made to the bill in the House, it would have to return to the Senate for consideration.
Thursday was the deadline for House and Senate bills to be heard and passed out of each chamber's committees. For the next two weeks, lawmakers will spend time in session to meet a March 14 deadline of getting House-originated bills out of the House and Senate-originated bills out of the Senate.
Backers say SB 1062 would bring system costs and compensation benefits in line with neighboring states. The State Chamber said Oklahoma ranks as the sixth-highest in workers' compensation benefits awarded to injured workers. Opponents say it would reduce employer liability and make significant cuts to a program intended to protect workers.
If the bill becomes law, workers' comp claims would be heard and decided by a panel of administrative law judges who are appointed by a trio of commissioners. The commissioners would be appointed by the governor, subject to Senate approval. It would make Oklahoma only the second state to allow qualified employers to opt out of the workers' compensation system entirely as long as they can develop their own replacement program. It also would establish a method for employee-employer disputes to be mediated outside of a courtroom.
Oklahoma, one of two states with a judicial system handling cases of workers hurt on the job, has 10 workers' compensation judges. Each judge hears disputed workers' compensation issues, which may be resolved informally at a prehearing or settlement conference, or by a trial. Written orders of the trial judge are final unless appealed to a three-judge review panel of the workers' compensation court, or to the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
House Minority Leader Scott Inman, D-Del City, said he agrees changes are needed in the system, but it's too early to make a major overhaul. Changes passed by legislation two years ago that were intended to reduce costs are just now taking effect, he said. Costs also could be reduced by working to control the rising costs of medical procedures and care within the system, he said.
“We have significant concerns with the Senate bill, primarily because it looks like in their effort to move to an administrative system, what they've essentially done is cut benefits for injured workers, period,” Inman said. “If that's how they want to improve the system, they'll see pushback from the House Democratic caucus.”
Inman said some House Republicans also might side with Democrats in opposing the measure. Republicans outnumber Democrats 72-29 in the House; measures need 51 votes to pass the House.
Other key issues
Other key issues advancing this session were two bills concerning the slaughter of horses and the sale of horse meat.
SB 375 would revoke the state's 1963 law banning the sale of horse meat, and allowing horse slaughtering and the sale of horse meat, but only if it is meant for human consumption outside of the U.S.
House Bill 1999 would allow horse slaughter but would continue the existing ban on the sale of horse meat for consumption in the state.
Also advancing is HB 1062, which would allow public school teachers or administrators who successfully complete a special school resource officer course to bring loaded handguns to school. The Oklahoma Commission on School Security, which has been meeting to propose legislation to improve school security, is expected to hold its final meeting Tuesday.
An anti-smoking proposal that would have let cities and towns craft their own anti-smoking laws was stopped cold turkey when a Senate committee voted down the bill. The 6-2 vote not to pass SB 36 ensures the proposal is dead for the next two years.
Proponents said cities and towns should have the right to pass their own anti-smoking laws. Opponents said the bill would have been unfair to restaurants that built separately ventilated rooms and that they should not be penalized for playing by the rules.
A measure on a topic that created a ruckus last year didn't raise a whisper this year. The personhood legislation, which holds that individual rights and constitutional protections begin at conception, did not get a committee hearing.
The House failed to pass the measure after two days of emotional debate. Rep. Mike Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City, author of HB 1029, also authored legislation last year that sought to put similar language on a ballot to let voters decide the issue. The state Supreme Court unanimously ruled it was unconstitutional because it would interfere with a woman's right to an abortion.
Reynolds, who is working with other states trying to get the U.S. Supreme Court to look at their personhood measures, said he heard from other members that the chairman of the committee to which his measure was assigned said he wasn't going to hear it.
“He's never bothered to visit with me about it,” Reynolds said. “That's the dictatorial powers the speaker has given to committee chairmen.”
Shannon said the personhood issue wasn't a top priority by an Oklahoma anti-abortion group and the constitutionality question likely had a bearing on it not being heard.
“Our job is to evaluate bills as they come on their merits and I'm glad that our committee chairmen are doing just that,” he said.