State House Democrats unveil legislative agenda


Monday, February 2nd 2004, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Picking up the cost of health insurance premiums for teachers and fixing a funding crisis at the state's trauma care centers are among goals to be outlined Monday by Democrats in the Oklahoma House.

Members of the House's majority party unveiled their legislative agenda for 2004 shortly before the Legislature was scheduled to convene its regular session at noon. House Republicans disclosed their own agenda on Jan. 26.

Many of the Democratic proposals are similar to those Democratic Gov. Brad Henry outlined earlier.

Henry has proposed paying 100 percent of the cost of insurance premiums for teachers and school support personnel in the first year of a five-year, $244 million compensation package.

Henry has also proposed a cigarette tax increase that would help expand health care coverage to 200,000 uninsured Oklahomans, upgrade the state's financially ailing trauma system and produce funding for a cancer research center.

Democrats placed education at the top of their agenda.

They said they want to use the state's Career Technology System to create a skilled work force and develop new jobs. They also plan to review the state's financial aid formula for schools to ensure adequate funding for all districts.

Democrats said they will ask the Legislature to demand that Congress review unfunded mandates in the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act, which critics have said is grossly underfunded.

Democrats said affordable and accessible health care is also a top goal and proposed using Oklahoma Medicaid funds to capture $800 million in forfeited federal health care matching dollars.

They will also support a Utilization of Unused Prescription Medications Act to transfer unused prescription drugs to the medically indigent and beef up funding for health care providers to improve access to health care for rural Oklahomans.

Proposals also will be offered to promote job growth, especially in struggling rural areas where Democrats are strongest politically, the legislators said.

They include expansion of the Quality Jobs Act and funding the Rural Economic Action Plan to provide aid for counties and cities to create industrial parks and revitalize blighted central business districts.

Democrats also said they will push for reforms in the workers compensation system, a major goal of House Republicans.

Democrats outlined several public safety initiatives including:

_A new class of domestic violence against pregnant women and their unborn children with increased penalties.

_Legislation to address Oklahoma's methamphetamine problem, which law enforcement officials have called an epidemic.

_Addressing Oklahoma's high incarceration rate for women through expanded use of drug courts and community sentencing.

Democrats also vowed to use any new revenue dedicated to transportation for construction and maintenance needs but did not announce support for increasing the state fuel tax for transportation needs, a proposal that died last year.

Democrats said they support tort reform initiatives that will make it harder to file frivolous lawsuits.

Henry has announced a similar proposal he said will prevent abuses that builds on reforms made in Texas and addresses areas untouched by the Texas changes.

House Republicans have made tort reform one of their top priorities and have recommended a plan that limits awards for pain and suffering to $250,000. Henry's proposal would set the limit at $300,000.