Oklahoma Republican leaders reveal legislative agenda

Monday, January 26th 2004, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Stopping frivolous lawsuits, cutting workers compensation costs and a constitutional ban on gay marriage top a lengthy list of legislative priorities unveiled Monday by state House Republicans.

A week before the Legislature is set to convene, members of the House's minority party said they want to bring a new management style to the state that will make it more accountable and business friendly.

"We need better management in the state of Oklahoma," said Minority Leader Todd Hiett, R-Kellyville. "We're talking about scrutinizing every dollar that is spent in state government."

There are 48 Republican members of the 101-member House.

Hiett said House Republicans are supportive of Democratic Gov. Brad Henry's initiative to raise teacher salaries and pay their health insurance costs. Henry revealed the $244 million, five-year plan last week.

But he said Republicans "have major concerns" about another of Henry's proposals to bring tribal gaming operations under state regulation and permit the state to share in the revenues from tribal casinos.

Hiett said the plan would expand gaming in the state by opening the door to Las Vegas-style gambling. Henry has said the plan would not bring Las Vegas-style casino gaming to Oklahoma but would permit games already played at tribal casinos.

A tort reform plan supported by Republicans would limit punitive damages in civil lawsuits and place caps on attorney's fees and non-economic damages similar to reforms adopted in Texas.

It would also create a "loser pays" system that would require litigants whose lawsuits are ruled frivolous to pay the defendant's attorneys fees.

The reforms are supported by the Oklahoma State Medical Association and individual physicians who have said excessive litigation and judgments against doctors pushed medical malpractice rates up 60 percent last year.

"Citizens of Oklahoma have a right for fair compensation when injuries occur," said Rep. Jim Newport, R-Ponca City. The reform package would discourage frivolous lawsuits, Newport said.

Rep. Ron Peterson, R-Broken Arrow, said Oklahoma's workers compensation system is the nation's most expensive and that previous attempts to reform it have had little effect on high workers compensation costs.

Unlike previous reform proposals, Peterson said Republicans would not scrap the state's court-based workers compensation system but would limit attorney fees to create "major cost savings."

Rep. Thad Balkman, R-Norman, said Republicans will push for a vote of the people on a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and support proposals to place copies of the Ten Commandments in public schools.

Balkman said Republicans also support a parental notification law. A 2001 measure that threatened doctors with financial liability if they did not notify a teen-ager's parents before performing an abortion was struck down by a federal judge.

Other GOP legislative proposals include:

--Expansion of state drug court programs to treat addicts and reduce prison populations.

--Expansion of the freeze on property tax rates for retirees.

--Modification of the tax code to reduce the tax on capital gains.