On Wednesday the Oklahoma House of Representatives adopted a resolution limiting the amount of time lawmakers have to ask questions on lawsuit reform bills being taken up during the current special session to three total hours. The resolution, which also places a heavy restriction on procedural maneuvers and prohibits amendments, only applies to the fourteen House bills that will be heard during the session.
The session is costing taxpayers an estimated $30,000 per day, and the resolution is an effort by Republican leadership to fast-track the process. Republicans also argue that since the lawsuit reform legislation is, for the most part, simply being copied and split apart from a previous bill there is no need to spend a lot of time discussing the provisions and there should be none for offering amendments.
“I honestly don't see a reason why it is necessary,” said Rep. Joe Dorman, D-Rush Springs. “I think it's just dictatorial and starts things off on a bad note. To say, no you cannot have the time necessary to ask your questions, should you have valid questions.”
“If we're here we should do the work while we're here, and I certainly think that we should take the time to make sure that each of these bills is adequate in doing what they should do,” Dorman added.
The resolution sparked debate in the House and became the entire focus of the chamber's floor session on Wednesday.
“… the Q and A time goes on and on and on, and then we have debate,” said Floor Leader Rep. Pam Peterson, R-Tulsa, on the House floor. “We thought since we want to be efficient and we also want to use the taxpayer money wisely in special session and just try to move it along … This is nothing new, and I think that we can move this along and do the people's business in efficient time.”
The tort reform legislation stems from House Bill 1603, which was struck down by the Oklahoma Supreme Court in June because it violated the state Constitution's single subject rule by covering a spectrum of topics, rather than focusing on one specific issue. HB 1603 is essentially being broken down into 30 separate bills in order to stand up to constitutional scrutiny.
House Democrats argue that one third of the House members were not in office during the legislation's original passage and therefore should be afforded the opportunity to properly research and discuss each bill. A handful of Republicans also voted against the resolution, some questioning the time limitations it puts in place.
“The thing is, I'm fine with some sort of reasonable time limitations,” said Rep. Randy Grau, R-Edmond. “Let's apply it to each individual measure though. Let's say an hour of question and answer for each bill … But, 180 minutes collectively, I just thought doesn't provide enough time.”
Certificate of merit
The resolution does not apply to what is arguably the most controversial aspect of the original law, the certificate of merit provision. That portion of the law required that individuals suing medical professionals or hospitals had to hire a third party expert to evaluate their case and show that it had merit, a service that typically costs thousands of dollars. In a second ruling, the Oklahoma Supreme Court struck down that provision on the basis it created a barrier to the courts for citizens.
Certificate of merit has been reintroduced through a Senate bill. The Senate's Wednesday floor session lasted mere minutes and consisted of no discussion of any of the 16 bills the chamber will vote on during the special session.
While the resolution does not restrict debate, the time in which lawmakers are allowed to make an argument against a bill, limiting debate on each individual measure can be accomplished through a simple procedure. Efforts by House Democrats to get Republican leadership to promise not to try to limit debate were denied on the floor.
“We are just reinstituting that law that has been in place since 2009,” said Peterson. “It is unlike other bills that go through committee when we begin session that's new language and members have not seen it or ever voted on it. But this is restoring current law … and I think we can do it in this manner and fairly and efficiently.”
Both the House and the Senate are poised to begin questions and answers during Thursday's floor sessions.