Sunday, March 6, 2011

Session Highlights from Last Week

Bill Would Require Criminal Background Checks in DHS Foster Care Cases

Legislation approved by a committee this week would require the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (OKDHS) to conduct criminal background checks on all adults living in a home before a foster child is reunited with a parent.

The bill was prompted by the case of seven-year-old Aja Johnson, who was found dead in a wooded area in rural Norman roughly a year ago. Aja’s stepfather, Lester Hobbs, had a violent past that ultimately included killing his daughter.

House Bill 2136 is designed to deter similar tragedies in the future.

The bill directs DHS to conduct a safety analysis upon receipt of a report that a child may be abused or neglected. The analysis must include a criminal background check of any adult known to be in the home of the child and inquiries into Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation and Federal Bureau of Investigation records.

​The measure also requires service provider progress reports submitted to the court be delivered to each party involved in determining the placement of a child. In addition, the measure permits the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth to disclose any previous child welfare encounters or investigations involving a child who has died or nearly died.

Legislative Leaders Push Forward with Lawsuit Reforms

House Bill 2128 cleared the Judiciary Committee this week, paving the way for lawsuit reform in Oklahoma. The measure includes a cap of $300,000 for noneconomic damages in all civil actions and repeals the inactive indemnity fund.

Damages for noneconomic losses are damages for so-called “pain and suffering,” emotional distress, loss of consortium or companionship, and other vague and intangible injuries. These damages involve no direct economic loss and have no precise value. It is very difficult for juries to assign a dollar value to these losses. As a result, these awards tend to be erratic and, because of the highly charged environment of personal injury trials, excessive.

In addition, HB 2128 also includes language stating that for any civil action arising from a claimed bodily injury, the amount of compensation which the judge and jury may award a plaintiff for economic loss shall not be subject to any limitation.
House Bill 2128 now proceeds to the floor of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.

Lawmakers Advance Pension Accountability Act

The state House today passed an important reform measure to improve the openness and accountability of the direct investments being made to the Oklahoma Teachers’ Retirement System.

House Bill 1007 creates the Pension Funding Accountability Act. The measure provides for the monthly transfer of revenues from the Teachers’ Retirement System Dedicated Revenue Revolving Fund to the Teachers’ Retirement System of Oklahoma (TRS) for the purpose of funding the system’s unfunded liability.

Last year, State Question 744 was a major issue facing voters. The measure would have imposed a billion dollar unfunded mandate for education funding. After the facts of the issue were publicly aired, Oklahoma citizens rejected it by a margin of roughly 81 percent to 19 percent.

​However, one issue associated with that debate did not receive extensive scrutiny – the reliability of the per-pupil funding figure cited by supporters of SQ 744.

According to official actuarial reports, for Fiscal Year 2010 the total contributions into the teachers’ retirement system were approximately $884 million. Roughly $200 million of that total each year is excluded from Oklahoma’s per-pupil spending because it is invested directly into the system.

House Bill 1007 passed the Oklahoma House of Representatives on a 69-27 vote. It will now go to the Oklahoma Senate.

Bill Would Help Citizens Search for Health Coverage

The Legislature continued taking steps forward to reduce the number of uninsured Oklahomans with House Bill 2130, which defines the membership and appointments to the Health Care for the Uninsured Board (HUB).

The purpose of the HUB is to establish a system of counseling, including a website, to educate and assist consumers in selecting an insurance policy that meets their needs.

The seven-member HUB consists of representatives from the Insurance Commissioner’s Office, the Oklahoma Healthcare Authority, insurance companies, agents and also consumers. The purpose of the HUB is to implement a market-based insurance exchange.

The HUB is comprised of appointees from the Governor, Speaker, and Senate Pro Tempore. The foundation and framework of the Oklahoma exchange were established in 2009. The actual concept of the exchange model was developed several years ago by the Heritage Foundation.

Oklahoma is one of seven states to receive an early innovator grant with Oklahoma receiving the largest amount of $54 million.

​House Bill 2128 passed the House Public Health Committee this afternoon and will proceed to the floor of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.

Transportation Transparency Act Passes House

House lawmakers voted this week to increase public scrutiny of state road revenue.
​House Bill 1489, the Taxpayer Transparency Act, passed through the Oklahoma House of Representatives with no opposition. It would create a single state Web site where the public can access all state road funding data.

The bill’s author noted that over half of some transportation-generated revenue, such as motor vehicle fees, currently goes to non-transportation sources and agencies.

With billions of dollars in unfunded road and bridge repairs, he argued that citizens should know where those tax dollars are actually going.

​House Bill 1489 passed 96-0 and will now go to the Oklahoma Senate for consideration.

Committee OKs Freedom Trail Act

Legislation approved by a House appropriations subcommittee would create an official Oklahoma Freedom Trail to recognize and document state historical sites associated with the freedom and civil rights movement of African-American citizens.

House Bill 1979 would direct the state tourism and transportation departments, the Oklahoma Historical Society and the Oklahoma Film and Music Commission to work jointly to promote the Oklahoma Freedom Trail. The legislation also calls for a working group to establish what sites would be included on the trail and to create a map and brochure to promote it.

​Among the sites that may be included are the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park in Tulsa, the University of Oklahoma garden dedicated to Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher, and portraits of noted civil rights leaders at the Oklahoma Capitol.

House Bill 1979 was approved unanimously by the House Appropriations and Budget Subcommittee on Natural Resources and Regulatory Services. It now awaits consideration in the House Appropriations and Budget Committee.

Committee Approves Alternative Sentencing for Veterans with PTSD

Legislation approved by a House committee would allow veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or traumatic brain injury (TBI) to receive treatment when they are convicted of a crime.

House Bill 1081 would allow a judge to send a military veteran convicted of a crime to the Department of Veterans Affairs for treatment if the defendant was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).
​The bill’s author, state Rep. John Bennett (R-Sallisaw), is a Marine who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Under the bill, the PTSD or TBI would have to be service-related and have contributed to the commission of the crime.

As a private citizen, Bennett worked with Matt Stiner and state Rep. Fred Jordan (R-Jenks), all Marine veterans, to help create the state’s first veteran’s court, an alternative sentencing venue for veterans struggling with addiction due, in part, to PTSD.

House Bill 1081will build on the success of that program, which has enjoyed an astounding 99 percent success rate since December 2008.

While the veteran’s court serves only those accused of misdemeanors, the new proposed alternative sentencing program would also include those involved in some felony crimes.

The program could ultimately save taxpayer dollars because the alternative sentencing/treatment programs would be far less expensive than automatic incarceration, Bennett noted.

House Bill 1081 passed unanimously in the House Judiciary Committee. It now awaits a vote on the floor of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.

Committee Advances Bill to Facilitate Bone Marrow Donation

A House committee advanced legislation to facilitate bone marrow donation this week.

House Bill 1078 would authorize a leave of absence for employees to make a bone marrow or organ donation and allow those employees to use sick, vacation and annual leave to do so.

House Bill 1078 was approved by the House Economic Development, Tourism and Financial Services Committee and awaits consideration on the House floor.

Committee Approves Bill to Improve Appropriations Process

Under legislation passed by a House committee this week, lawmakers would have more information before passing a state budget.

House Bill 1422 authorizes the Oklahoma State and Education Employees Group Insurance Board to begin education employees’ insurance plan year on July 1, starting in 2012.

Changing the insurance plan’s start date allows lawmakers to know the cost of the plan before they put together the state budget. In the past, it was not unusual for entities to have to ask for a supplemental due to rate increases when a new plan started in January – the halfway point of the fiscal year. It was also not unusual for the plan to be less than fully funded, requiring school districts to address the shortfall by diverting money from other school programs.

House Bill 1422 was approved by the House Insurance Committee and will now proceed to the House floor for consideration.

Lawmakers Approve Eminent Domain Bill

Lawmakers approved legislation that would ensure Oklahomans who lose property due to a city or other authority’s use of eminent domain have the right to buy back any part of the property that goes unused.

House Bill 1226 gives a property owner the first right to buy back property acquired through eminent domain.

The legislation would also require the city or authority to send the original owner a notice of the right to buy back the property at either its original price or, if it had lost value, at the current appraised value. The original owner or his or her heirs would have 90 days to claim the right to purchase the property.

House Bill 1226 now proceeds to the Senate for consideration.

Committee Clears Bill Creating Sickle-Cell Anemia Program

Legislation that would direct the state health department to provide information on data and resources related to sickle-cell disease has been passed by a House committee.

Sickle cell disease affects an estimated 70,000 to 100,000 Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, a vaccine that protects against invasive pnemococcal disease and has nearly halved the number of sickle cell-related deaths among children less than four years of age.

House Bill 1980 now awaits consideration by the full House.

Committee Approves Derby Bill Aiding Disabled

Legislation that will aid vehicles transporting elderly citizens who require wheelchair has gained committee approval.

Under House Bill 1687, the state would issue a bright orange disability placard for vehicles transporting citizens in wheelchairs. The placard would be granted only to vehicles that have a wheelchair ramp mounted in the car, giving them the right to use handicap parking spaces.

Under current law, the transport vehicle often has to park at the far edge of the lot to allow the ramp room to unload a senior citizen. As a result, the elderly person may then have to cross the parking lot in a wheelchair, potentially moving below the sightline of drivers pulling into the lot – a potentially dangerous situation.

House Bill 1687 passed the House General Government Committee on a 14-0 vote. It now goes to the floor of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.

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