New Legislature facing old issues

Saturday, February 5th 2005, 4:13 pm

By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ A new Oklahoma Legislature featuring the first Republican House majority in more than eight decades is preparing to take on some old issues such as taxes, workers compensation reform and funding for schools and highways.

For the first time since the 1921-22 session, a Republican speaker will be in charge when the House convenes Monday at noon for a legislative session that must end by 5 p.m. on May 27.

He is Rep. Todd Hiett, a 37-year-old Kellyville rancher, who is eligible for only one two-year term as speaker because of 12-year limits on legislative service. Hiett is beginning his 11th year as a House member.

After brief sessions of the House and Senate, the two bodies will meet in joint session to hear Democratic Gov. Brad Henry deliver his third State of the State address and present his budget recommendations for the next fiscal year.

The first session of the 50th Oklahoma Legislature is remarkable because of the number of freshmen members _ 39 in the 101-member House and 15 in the 48-member House.

Mainly because of term limits, the House turnover is the biggest since court-ordered redistricting in 1965. The turnover in the Senate is the greatest in 15 years.

Democrat Cal Hobson of Lexington returns as president pro tem of the Senate. He will preside over a slim 26-22 majority, with 25 votes needed to pass a bill.

Republicans hold a 57-44 majority in the House after an impressive showing in the November general election. Only 51 votes are required for passage of legislation.

Rep. Jari Askins, D-Duncan, heads up the new Democratic minority. She also is in her final two-year term.

Another first for the House is that the speaker pro tem is a woman _ Rep. Susan Winchester, R-Chickasha.

Although there are a lot of new faces at the Capitol, most of the issues are familiar ones.

Thanks to an improving economy, lawmakers will have $370 million more to spend this year in a $5.8 billion budget.

Henry has already rolled out much of his program, including a $114 million initiative for common schools, a $500 million bond program for colleges and universities and a plan to give income tax rebates of up to $100 and invest heavily in high tech research.

Like Hiett, Henry is advocating changes in the workers compensation system to cut costs for employers.

The governor also is pushing a proposal to bring cheaper, imported drugs to Oklahoman, as long as they are approved by the Federal Drug Administration.

Hiett has made work comp reform his No. 1 priority and also says he will fight hard for lawsuit reform. Hobson sees the college bond issue as his top issue.

Henry's school plan includes $58 million to fund part of a four-year plan to bring the salaries of Oklahoma teachers to the regional average.

He also is stressing funding for teacher health insurance, all-day kindergarten and college scholarships.

House Republicans are sponsoring legislation calling for consolidating administrative functions of some school districts, a plan some Democrats say is a step toward merging scores of rural schools.

Henry's tax plan proposes setting aside $100 million in excess funds for tax rates and another $63 million for income tax relief for retirees, capital gains cuts for business and reducing estate taxes.

Much debate is expected over highway funding in what Henry says will be a tight budget year after commitments on teacher and state employee pay raises are kept.

Republicans are backing legislation to redirect some vehicle tag money that now goes to counties, schools and other entities to the highway program.

The highway debate will occur against the backdrop of an initiative petition drive that proposes to raise gasoline taxes by 5 cents per gallon and diesel taxes by 8 cents a gallon. That would raise an estimated $150 million a year. Petitions proposing the tax are now awaiting approval in the Supreme Court, with sponsors hoping for a vote this year.

The new House administration got off the a rocky start after Democratic outcries over the mass firing of House employees and new rules Democrats said increased the speaker's power.

Hiett also announced that House Republicans would come up with their own college bond program, expressing concern over whether it is prudent to use new lottery funds to retire the bond debt.

Hobson accused Hiett of playing politics with college projects that are critically needed. He challenged Hiett to come up with an alternative funding source if he did not like to use lottery funds.

Both sides have predicted the new makeup of the Legislature will not result in gridlock, but Hobson issued a warning last week during a symposium sponsored by The Associated Press.

``I see the glass as more than half full,'' Hobson said. ``If it's my way or the highway, we're certain to fail. This is a democracy, not an autocracy.''

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