Republicans show muscle in first two months of session

Saturday, March 19th 2005, 5:54 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Republicans showed their new legislative strength last week by shaping Democratic Gov. Brad Henry's higher education bond program to their liking in the House and sidetracking his tort reform plan in a troubled Senate.

The GOP showed it was in firm control in the House by resisting pressure from the governor and Senate Democrats to roll Henry's bond plan out of committee and pass it intact.

Both Democrats and Republicans declared a victory after an agreement on a bond program was reached, following weeks tense negotiations.

But Hiett's stamp was clearly imprinted on the bond program that passed the House by a 4-1 margin and was sent to the Senate, where it is expected to pass this week.

Hiett succeeded in reducing the size of the bond plan from $500 million to $475 million, allowing $25 million to be put into a new ``bond bank'' that is designed to handle future capital needs of regional colleges and universities.

The bill also included a provision whereby the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University can issue their own capital bond issues in the future.

In a concession to Democrats, Hiett agreed to altering that proposal to give the Legislature veto power over OU and OSU capital bond projects if both the House and Senate agree.

Agreement on the bond plan came quickly after Hiett announced the latest version of his program had the backing of OU President David Boren, former Democratic governor and U.S. senator.

It was the first test of Hiett's leadership as the first Republican speaker in eight decades.

The GOP took control of the House this year after Democratic losses in the November elections. Republicans outnumber Democrats 57-44 in the House after beginning the 2004 session with a 53-48 advantage.

Republicans also made gains in the Senate and now trail Democrats in membership in that 48-member body by only a 26-22 margin.

In the past, Democrats in the Senate were able to pass their bills against united Republican opposition. Now they have difficulty doing that, especially on controversial issues.

That fact was illustrated when Henry's lawsuit reform bill was scheduled for a vote last Wednesday.

Sen. Charles Laster, D-Shawnee, declined to bring up the bill, saying he had the votes of only 23 or 25 Democrats who were present. He said he could not get a promise of any GOP votes.

Laster did not push for a vote on the bill Thursday because three of the Senate's 28 Democrats were absent.

The absentees included Senate President Pro Tem Cal Hobson, D-Lexington, whose leadership is expected to be discussed at a Democratic caucus on Monday.

Sens. Stratton Taylor, D-Claremore, and Gilmer Capps, D-Snyder, also were absent.

Taylor, a former president pro tem, was vacationing all week with his family. Capps also has missed several days because he has been attending to his wife, who is undergoing treatment for cancer.

Sen. Robert M. Kerr, D-Altus, also has been undergoing cancer therapy but has attended most Senate sessions to date and says he plans to serve out the remaining two years of his term.

With the GOP controlling the House and Senate Democrats having problems, Republicans believe they have more leverage to bring about changes they have wanted for years in such areas as taxes, workers' compensation and the civil justice system.

At the end of last week, Republican leaders were urging Senate Democrats to break from their leadership and embrace House-passed GOP programs.

Sen. Scott Pruitt, R-Broken Arrow, said Democrats should move with ``the same sense of urgency'' on those bills this year as they did a year ago when they pushed through Henry's lottery proposals.

``There is no reason for them to go to conference,'' Pruitt said.