Last-minute twists and turns have strained feelings, but Republican legislative leaders and the GOP governor say they are on track to reduce Oklahoma's top personal income tax rate and overhaul the workers' compensation system.
All say they want to avoid what happened last year: Proposals to reduce the personal income tax and to change a part of the workers' compensation system, both high priorities then as they are now, failed to advance.
The workers' compensation measure, contained in Senate Bill 1062 by Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, and House Bill 2032, which contained an income tax cut proposal by Gov. Mary Fallin and House Speaker T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, made it through last week's latest legislative deadline.
Most bills generated in the House of Representatives had to be heard by Senate committees, and most bills that originated in the Senate had to be heard by House committees by Thursday.
Lawmakers have until April 25 to send the bills back to their originating chamber, and then spend the next month trying to get legislation passed.
Income tax proposals
House Minority Leader Scott Inman, D-Del City, said failure of either the income tax cut or workers' compensation measure would adversely affect the other.
“The speaker and the governor are adamantly in favor of an income tax cut while the pro tem is less supportive of an income tax cut, but certainly passionate about his workers' compensation reform package,” he said.
“I'd argue that if both don't get passed, neither probably gets passed.”
Another income tax proposal, SB 585, didn't survive.
A House subcommittee two weeks ago voted not to pass it, which came close to derailing HB 2032.
Sen. Mike Mazzei, the author of SB 585 and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, retaliated at first by refusing to hear HB 2032.
He changed his mind a couple days later when he gutted HB 2032 and inserted new language.
Fallin was livid about the change to her proposal, an aide close to the governor said.
The aide spoke only on terms of confidentiality because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
The governor's office, after hearing that SB 585 would not pass the House panel, received assurances from GOP Senate leadership that her measure would be heard and approved by the Senate.
The governor considered speaking out against the changes but eventually decided to publicly remain calm and encourage lawmakers to agree on an income tax cut proposal before the session ended.
Fallin and Shannon proposed a simple reduction of the top personal income tax rate from 5.25 percent to 5 percent, effective Jan. 1.
The new version of HB 2032 calls for reducing the top personal income tax rate to 4.95 percent, taking effect in 2015.
It also ends the practice of five popular economic tax credits being sold to others who need to reduce their income tax liability to the state.
Bingman said the Senate may also consider more changes, such as eliminating or reducing tax credits or deductions.
Opponents of eliminating certain credits or deductions last year helped lead the defeat of several income tax-cutting bills.
Meanwhile, several House members changed the wording of SB 1062, which was approved last week by a House committee. Its main intent to change the workers' compensation system from a judicial system to an administrative one remained intact.
Although a House committee last week passed SB 1062, the measure likely won't be taken up anytime soon by the full House, Shannon said.
“We've still got some cleanup changes we may need to do, so it's probably headed to conference at this point,” he said.
Changes in SB 1062 restored some of the cuts in compensation for injured workers that were proposed in the original measure.
Inman said any cost savings in the bill would be brought about by reducing medical benefits to injured workers; he said some injured workers will get 30 percent less benefits.
Temporary total disability payments now are based on 100 percent of the state's average weekly wage.
SB 1062 would reduce that benefit to 70 percent of the average weekly wage to take into account that the compensation is not taxed.
The new version, among other things, also restores benefits for widows and amputees to current levels, extends the amount of time an injured worker can file a claim from three days back to 30, and reinstates compensation rights for volunteer firefighters and members of the Oklahoma National Guard.
Inman said passage isn't guaranteed because some lawmakers still are concerned about an opt-out provision in the bill.
Legislators last year failed to advance a proposal that would have allowed certain large businesses to opt out of the workers' compensation system as long as they provided equivalent benefits to injured workers.
The bill fell nine votes shy of the required 51 votes for passage in the 101-member body.
“Over 20 House Republicans voted against an opt-out provision,” he said.
“While this version of the opt-out is slightly different than last year's version, it nevertheless presents the same problem by allowing for large employers to pull out of the workers' comp insurance pool; we believe it will drive up rates for Main Street small businesses.”
While legislative leaders and the governor have had some rough moments, it has mostly been smooth in the House.
During the past two years, former House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, struggled with constitutional conservative members who last year resorted to working with House Democrats to derail or at least mire down the GOP leadership's measures.
Inman said the improved environment can be attributed partially to a good working relationship between him and Shannon.
“It's been one of the smoothest and less acrimonious sessions that I've ever experienced in my seven years here at the Capitol,” Inman said.
House Democrats are “less than pleased” about the overall number of Democratic bills being heard in the House. Last week, the House Calendar Committee, which decides what measures are to be heard by the full House, approved only two of the 88 measures set for the House floor were authored by Democrats.
None of the bills passed the newly formed House States Rights Committee were heard in the Senate, HB 1412, which would prohibit any city, town or county from adopting or implementing policy recommendations established by the United Nations Agenda 21-sustainable development action plan. Rep. Lewis Moore, chairman of the States' Rights Committee, said he's not upset about the snub the bills his committee received.
“I don't think it's anything personal other than they don't have a like committee armed with people that have perhaps the same degree of concern that we have,” said Moore, R-Arcadia.
“So it's really an education process. We knew it would be tough in the first year to make an impact.”