SPECIAL session prompts pleas for help

Sunday, July 15th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ From fixing toilets, to replacing burned-out college buildings, to funding prison beds _ the requests to expand the planned September special session of the Oklahoma Legislature keep coming in.

``We have an extremely impressive pile of pleas for assistance,'' said Mike Hunter, secretary of state and adviser to Gov. Frank Keating on legislative matters.

To date, Keating has received about 20 requests to expand the session, and with the lure of a $257.7 million deposit into the Rainy Day Fund, more pleas can be expected. Several of those seeking aid from the Legislature proposed dipping into the constitutional fund, which was created to help the state meet emergencies.

Requests include committing state funds for the Tar Creek Superfund Site, appropriating $2 million for public transit, improving health care coverage of education employees, funding of a technology institute in Tulsa, providing additional compensation for Pardon and Parole Board members, committing $5 million for the Tulsa Race Riot memorial, and authorizing $10 million in bonds to replace antiquated Forest Division equipment.

Other requests include providing $10 million for a museum at Fort Still, fixing a tax problem associated with a state bond program, restoring funding for the welfare-to-work program and appropriating $500,000 to Tulsa Community College.

Ron Ward, newly named director of the Department of Corrections, reminded Keating in a June 22 letter that his agency is projecting a deficit of up to $62.2 million this year. He said the department is especially underfunded in the areas of contract prison beds and inmate medical care.

``I believe it would be less expensive for the state to continue to provide constitutional conditions of confinement than to risk federal court oversight by taking drastic measures to deal with massive inmate overcrowding and inadequate medical care,'' Ward wrote.

Pamela M. Warren, Keating cabinet secretary of administration, filed her request for money to renovate rest rooms at the Jim Thorpe Office Building in May.

She called the situation critical and a health and safety concern. ``Recently, a line burst causing raw sewage to spill into an occupied work area,'' she wrote. ``Given the condition of the lines, it is impossible to predict when or where future problems will occur.''

It is estimated the renovation of the rest rooms will cost $1.5 million.

Glen E. Mayle, president of Northeastern A&M College in Miami, wrote the governor this month that his college needs help to replace a building that was destroyed by fire.

It will cost $3.2 million to replace the building by relocating the Music Department and gymnasium and insurance will only take care of $1.65 million, Mayle wrote. He asked that the Rainy Day Fund be tapped to make up the $1.55 million difference.

Senate President Pro Tem Stratton Taylor, D-Claremore, originally envisioned a one or two-day special session to enact a tax reform package that would eliminate the state income tax and sales tax on groceries.

Congressional redistricting was added to the session's agenda, then Keating proposed legislation to make sure Oklahomans who get federal tax refunds are not penalized on their state taxes.

Keating's office and legislators also are working on a workers' compensation package that would change the system and fix a problem that led to a stoppage in payments to some workers with multiple injuries.

That's another weighty issue that will probably require an agreement between the governor and House and Senate leaders of both parties to assure its passage.

Hunter said a work comp bill is a good bet to be added to Keating's special session call. ``We are optimistic that we can come up with a bill that will have bipartisan support,'' he said.

As governor, Keating sets the agenda for the extra legislative meeting, which cost taxpayers about $100,000 for a five-day meeting. Five days is the normal amount of time it takes for bills to go through the legislative process, but lawmakers sought to speed up that process by introducing bills in May while they were at the Capitol for the regular session.

No date has been set for the special meeting, other than ``sometime in September.''

Hunter said it is ``still everyone's desire'' that the special session not be a long one.

``I would recommend that the governor continue what he is doing and be very judicious about adding items,'' Taylor said.

Although noncommittal on specific issues, Hunter said it was ``not out of the realm of possibility'' that additional items will be added to the special session call, in addition to a work comp plan.

He said the key to adding to the session will be agreement between the governor's office and House and Senate Democratic and Republican leaders.

Keating, meanwhile, exuded a gung-ho attitude on the tax issue. He said he wanted lawmakers to stay in special session ``as long as it takes'' to pass a measure and submit it to a vote of the people.