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Lawmakers Ask Governor Henry To Expand Special Session

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Threatened with a government shutdown in less than a month, Gov. Brad Henry has ordered Oklahoma lawmakers back to the Capitol for a special budget-writing session to fund state agencies.

But that hasn't stopped some lawmakers from dragging out a laundry list of pet projects and issues they want Henry to add to his special session order that could distract the Legislature from its primary task.

Lawmakers have filed more than 350 pieces of legislation for them to consider when they return later this month _ 248 by members of the House alone, according to legislative staffers.

Most are appropriations bills that would fund state agencies during the fiscal year that begins July 1. But more than a dozen bills _ ranging from immigration reform to the minimum wage, expanding rural housing to helping out rape victims _ have little to do with writing a state budget.

``Governor Henry strongly believes that special session work should be focused on the budget and related revenue matters,'' said Paul Sund, communications director for the governor.

``With a July 1 deadline and a potential government shutdown looming, the budget must and will be the top priority,'' Sund said. State agencies will run out of money unless a state budget and agency allocations are approved before the end of the current fiscal year on June 30.

A handful of lawmakers believe there will be enough time to consider other issues as diverse as rural economic development and changes in Oklahoma's system of civil justice.

Rep. Rebecca Hamilton, D-Oklahoma City, wants House Republican leaders to ask Henry to include new legal protections for rape victims to the special session's call. Similar legislation died in the regular legislative session.

Hamilton said the Victim's Economic Security and Safety Act would guarantee rape victims, victims of domestic violence and pregnant women the right to go to the doctor, attend court proceedings or see a lawyer without fear of losing their jobs.

Rep. Richard Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City, wants lawmakers to consider raising the state minimum wage, similar to legislation killed earlier in the year. The bill would raise the minimum wage by $1 to $6.15 an hour, the first in the state since the federal minimum wage was raised to $5.15 almost a decade ago.

``This is the right thing to do, and even more so, the moral thing to do,'' Morrissette said.

House Floor Leader Dan Sullivan, R-Tulsa, wants to include lawsuit reform _ a priority of GOP House Speaker Todd Hiett _ in the special session. Similar legislation did not pass during the regular session.

Supporters say changes are needed in the state's civil justice system to stop frivolous lawsuits and lower medical malpractice costs.

``If we want to build Oklahoma's economy and create new jobs, we have to address our weaknesses _ and our legal system is a glaring weakness,'' Sullivan said.

Henry ordered the special session in the waning hours of the 2006 Legislature when House and Senate leaders remained at a stalemate on how to divide the largest budget in state history _ more than $7 billion including more than $1 billion in revenue from economic growth and one-time windfalls.

The Legislature adjourned its four-month regular session on May 26 without a budget. Work stalled over Republican demands for the largest tax cut in state history and Democrat spending priorities for education, health care and roads and bridges.

After taking a week off, budget negotiations are scheduled to resume this week with lawmakers tentatively scheduled to return to the Capitol either June 12 or June 19, authorities said.

The governor's executive order confined the subject matter of the special session to budget matters, ``including revenue, tax relief, appropriations and other fiscal matters.''

Lawmakers _ including those sponsoring non-budget measures in the special session _ believe some bills are clearly outside the scope of the governor's call.

``I don't know that they will be dealt with,'' said Rep. Kevin Calvey, R-Del City. Calvey and Rep. Randy Terrill, R-Moore, have asked Henry to include immigration reform on the special session's agenda.

``I certainly think immigration reform is another fiscal matter within the meaning of the special session call,'' said Terrill, who wants lawmakers to consider legislation that would require public employees to report suspected illegal aliens. A similar measure passed the House but died in the Senate.

``We've been given a rare second-chance to do right by the people of Oklahoma if Governor Henry will add immigration reform to the special-session agenda,'' Terrill said.

Hiett, who has vowed to revive rural economic development measures during the special session that failed earlier, said lawmakers should focus on passing a budget when they return to the Capitol.

``I do believe that first and foremost we should be focused on passing the budget and passing the tax cuts,'' said Hiett, of Kellyville. ``I think we should be cautious to opening the door too wide.''

Expanding the special session's call will only expand its length and cost, Hiett said. It costs about $150,000 a week for the House and Senate to meet.

``The governor made it very clear when he issued the call for special session that he wants the Legislature to focus our efforts on writing a state budget,'' said Senate President Pro Tem Mike Morgan, D-Stillwater.

``...I am hopeful we are very close to a framework that will guide the budget process,'' Morgan said.
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