Scores Of Bills Not Dead But Not Exactly Alive Either

Saturday, February 17th 2007, 2:53 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The Senate Rules Committee may no longer be strictly a graveyard committee, but most of the 232 bills sent to it appear to be in purgatory and no amount of praying can assure their survival by a committee deadline.

``That's a fair'' assessment, said Senate Co-President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City.

Legislation in serious jeopardy early in the 2007 legislative session, which opened Feb. 5, covers everything from making English the official state language, to reinstituting a vehicle inspection program, to regulating how telemarketers operate in political campaigns.

``If you just look at the number of bills assigned to it, it is clear that a small percentage is going to come out,'' said Sen. Charles Laster, D-Shawnee, co-floor leader.

After Democratic Gov. Brad Henry expressed concern about some of his key programs being bottled up, a Senate spokesman stressed the Rules Committee is operating differently than it did in the past under a Democratic and Republican power-sharing agreement.

That's true, up to a point. Traditionally, the committee has been used by Democratic leaders to kill bills they did not like. Most often, measures did not get a hearing because the panel did not meet.

For the first time, the 48 member-Senate is tied 24-24, forcing a power-sharing pact between the two parties. It is the only tied state legislative body in the country this year.

The committee did hold a meeting last week, but considered only a handful of the 232 bills sent to it because Democratic and Republican floor leaders could not agree on committee assignments for various pieces of legislation.

Another meeting is scheduled ahead of Thursday's deadline for committee action on Senate bills, but so far only six bills are on the Rules Committee agenda.

Sen. Sean Burrage, D-Claremore, said the agenda could grow if he and Sen. Mike Schulz, R-Altus, can agree on hearing additional proposals. Burrage and Schulz are co-chairmen of the committee.

Senate President Pro Tem Mike Morgan, D-Stillwater, said a power-sharing provision that all committee co-chairmen must agree on legislation to be heard is reducing the number of bills that will come out of the Senate and be sent to the House.

``I thought under this agreement we would have fewer bills actually come through the process and I think we're seeing that borne out,'' he said.

The stalemate on Senate legislation could doom bills that have either passed House committees or will pass before a March 8 deadline.

House bills will go through the same process that Senate bills went through, requiring floor leaders to agree on committee assignments.

Morgan said it would be an upset if House bills survive that are similar to ones dying in Senate rules.

``I think you would have to presume that if a bill has substantially the same content as ones that we haven't been able to reach an agreement on the first round, the same thing would happen on the second round,'' the Senate leader said.

Laster said the new ``finality rule'' in the Senate is causing some to hold back on pushing for a vote on legislation. Under that rule, bills that are defeated in committee are dead not only for this year but next year as well.

The Senate's top two leaders are allowed to use so-called ``silver bullets'' three times to keep alive bills they support by reassigning them to other committees.

``We also call them magic beans,'' said Morgan, who has kept two bills alive that are part of Henry's agenda. One bill is called the All Kids Act and would expand the number of children covered by Medicaid. Another would institute an early childhood program for 3-year-olds.

Coffee has so far used only one of his silver bullets _ getting a bill reassigned that protects teachers from lawsuits.

Schulz and Burrage also can independently put three bills each on the agenda.

Burrage has advanced a bill to allow for reimportation of U.S.-made drugs from other countries _ another proposal by the governor _ and Senate Democratic proposals to raise the minimum wage and expand the income eligibility under a college scholarship program from $50,000 to $75,000.

Schulz has kept alive bills to define manure, require that voters show identification at polling places and revamp state law on trespassing.