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Workers' compenpensation bill given final approval

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- The Oklahoma House gave final approval Friday to a bill aimed at cutting costs of the state's workers' compensation system.

The vote was 83-9 for the measure, the result of a compromise forged principally between Republican House Speaker Todd Hiett and Democratic Gov. Brad Henry.

Henry is expected to sign the bill early next week.

The governor also announced he plans to expand the ongoing legislative special session to consider legislation to increase funding for the state's centennial and to hire more guards for Oklahoma's understaffed prisons.

In Friday's debate on the House floor, Hiett said the workers compensation bill will save employers $120 million by reducing medical and legal costs in the program businesses use to buy insurance to cover on-the-job injuries.

"This bill will stimulate the economy of Oklahoma," Hiett said. He called it "a true compromise."

Eight Democrats and one Republican voted against the bill. Many of those opposing the plan complained of having little input into development of the bill.

Rep. Richard Morrisette, D-Oklahoma City, denounced the bill as unfair to workers.

"This bill reduces benefits, takes away right and will do more damage than you can imagine," Morrisette said as he criticized a provision that remove the right of employees to choose their doctor.

Hiett, however, argued the bill would help workers by saving businesses money that could be used to pay higher wages and create jobs. The GOP speaker had made work comp reform his No. 1 legislative priority

The Oklahoma Legislature ended its regular session May 27 and began meeting in special session Tuesday to consider legislation to improve the state's workers' compensation system, the program under which employers buy insurance to cover on-the-job injuries.

"Workers' compensation reform was the top priority and I wanted all of lawmakers' attention focused on it," Henry said in a statement. "Now that we are about to resolve that issue, I think it is appropriate to expand the session agenda to include these other two pressing items."

Henry said that following a revenue estimate to be issued by the State Equalization board on June 20, he wants a legislative work group to identify funding sources for the new guards and the centennial.

Once a funding plan is identified by the working group, the full Oklahoma Legislature would return to vote on it.

"If we want to have a centennial in 2007, we have to fund it," Henry said. "We can leverage matching dollars with these funds and provide a boost to Oklahoma's economy and pride.

"If we want to ensure safety in and around state prisons, we have to put more correctional officers on the beat. We haven't done that yet."
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