Early legislative adjournment in doubt

Saturday, May 17th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Oklahoma lawmakers appear headed for a frantic finish of the 2003 legislative session, with a plethora of divisive issues still to be resolved.

Faced with a May 30 deadline to adjourn, legislators still must wrap up a pared-down budget and deal with issues like smoking in restaurants, expanding Indian gambling and restricting medical malpractice lawsuits.

Legislators had hoped to complete their work a week early _ by this Friday. But many are now saying that may be a lost cause.

``I think it's still possible, but I won't be surprised if we're back here the following week,'' said Rep. Todd Hiett, R-Kellyville, House Republican leader.

Gov. Brad Henry said predictions of a May 23 adjournment are probably optimistic.

``My guess is we probably won't, but I think we will probably get out a few days early,'' he said.

One problem is that some of the biggest items of the session are heading for their first votes after late-developing agreements.

Henry's task force recommendations on changes aimed at slowing costly medical malpractice lawsuits were not announced until last Friday.

They drew immediate objections from Republicans.

So did a late agreement on a new gambling compact with Indian tribes that would give the state's stamp of approval to certain video games of questionable legality.

While Henry has bragged of bipartisan cooperation in putting together a $5 billion budget and erasing a huge shortfall, there were signs of a partisan fight developing over the gambling compact and other issues.

Hiett, House minority leader, pointed to strong GOP opposition to Henry's lottery proposal and said the Indian compact would face similar disdain from Republicans.

``I am disappointed that they would try to pass Class 3 gambling on the backs of the horse industry,'' Hiett said.

Henry says part of the reason for a new gambling compact is to help the financially ailing horse racing industry in the state.

It also would be a financial boon to the state, according to Scott Meacham, director of the Office of State Finance. He estimates the compact would produce more than $30 million for the state treasury next year.

A final battle also has yet to be waged over restricting smoking in public places.

Last week, Henry rejected a new set of smoking rules promulgated by the Department of Health, saying they exceeded the limits set in state law.

He said he remained in favor of ``tough but reasonable'' rules governing smoking in restaurants, workplaces and other public areas and urged lawmakers to act on pending legislation.

Smoking legislation is a big question mark heading into the final days of the session, however.

Three anti-smoking bills were sent to a joint conference committee with the idea of hammering out a compromise bill, presumably a proposal authored by Senate President Pro Tempore Cal Hobson and House Speaker Larry Adair.

However, disagreements led authors of two of the bills _ Sen. Ben Robinson, D-Muskogee, and Rep. Ray Vaughn, R-Edmond, to press for their bills to be signed out of the conference panel. Both bills target smoking in restaurants and workplaces.

So lawmakers enter the final two weeks of the session with the strange scenario of three similar anti-smoking bills still alive.

One anti-smoking lobbyist said part of the holdup has been resistance by the Oklahoma Restaurant Association, which suggested a phase-in of a ban on smoking in restaurants.

He said some tobacco interests are still fighting the anti-smoking proposals.

Robinson said the Hobson-Adair plan still ``may be the best hope'' for cutting down on secondhand smoke in public places this year.

Besides such difficult subjects as smoking and gambling, lawmakers have funding issues to decide.

They have yet to act on a revenue-producing change in the cigarette tax or give their approval to such proposals as bond financing for the new state history museum.