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Special Session Starts Today

Filed by Michael Cross in Feature, News, Politics.
September 3, 2013

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State lawmakers return to the capitol today for a Special Session to fix a Comprehensive Tort Reform bill declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in June.

Justices ruled House Bill 1603 passed in 2009 and signed by then Governor Brad Henry contained too many subjects and thus constituted log rolling.

The Governor and legislative leaders are hoping to get through as many as 30 bills passed over the next two weeks.

While it’s been seven years since lawmakers called a special session, this one wasn’t much of a surprise to political science professor Keith Gaddie.

“If you look back at the history of what the Republican legislature has been doing, this is one of the hallmark pieces of legislation that the chamber and the business community have been pushing for. Hearing that it had been overturned by the Supreme Court you had to know a special session was going to follow.”

The seven to two ruling came down from the State Supreme Court just a few days after lawmakers ended the regular session.

Over the past two and a half months, Senate staffers worked tirelessly to create the individual bills needed to replace House Bill 1603.

Also, state leaders needed to plan the perfect time when all of their lawmakers returned from their summer vacation.

Gaddie says the sooner the better as timing becomes essential.

“Having the court throw it out means we go back to the previous system. This means that lawsuits that might not have been filed have now been filed. The longer you wait to have the law reinstated the longer the time period is to pursue additional litigation to get more lawsuits into place.”

As we learned from this past legislative session getting leadership bills passed isn’t an issue with a two-thirds GOP majority in both chambers, but not all of them passed with the so-called emergency.

An emergency makes the bill effective as soon as the governor signs it and requires 68 yes votes in the House and 32 in the Senate.

That’s a narrow margin for the Republicans which the Democrats might be able to stop.

Without the emergency, bills wouldn’t take effect for three months.

Dave Bond with the conservative Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs says while an emergency is nice, tort reform would still be active by the end of the year.

“The 90 day rule at the maximum that it would take for a bill to take effect into law, in our view it would be better to get the law passed now as opposed to February because that’s 90 days earlier at worse that it’s going to take effect.”

The speed to get bills passed raises concerns among Democrats.

House Minority Leader Scott Inman says HB 1603 passed in 2009 after months of negotiations between Republicans who had a much slimmer majority and the Democratic governor.

Also, because of term limits many current lawmakers weren’t in the legislature back then.

Now, Inman says they’ll have just two weeks to hear what was originally a 135 page, 90 section omnibus bill.

“You’re going to see the Republican leadership and the governor throws some bills at us and be told you have essentially one day to stand up and debate them, discuss them and vote on them and never see them again. They’ll be sent over to the other chamber with the anticipation that they will be passed and be sent to the governor.”

Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman promises to keep the same language as the 2009 bill, and he’s not attempting to hide anything.

“I think it’s important that we get in and take care of the business and go home as soon as possible. Don’t drag anything out.”

House Speaker T.W. Shannon sent a memo to lawmakers saying he expects the special session to last six to ten days.

At $30,000 a day, a two week special session might seem expensive.

But the OCPA’s Dave Bond says it’s worth $150,000 to $300,000 to keep Oklahoma in line with other states on lawsuit reform

“Other states like Texas and others are making significant strides in having a tort climate, a legal climate that’s conducive to job creation, that’s conducive to employment. If we don’t take care of those situations, we’ve lost employers in the past. We can lose them again.”

While any bills passed over the next two weeks could appease the log rolling complaint against the Tort Reform bill, Gaddie says it might not be the end of legal challenges.

“It may have other defects that simply weren’t reached because the state Supreme Court didn’t have to get there. They were able to get to the single subject rule and not get to the other issues, so we are setting ourselves up for more litigation.”

Gaddie says we also might not be seeing the end of special sessions to fix unconstitutional log rolling bills.

He points to the tax cut-capitol repair bill which will likely also be overturned by the state supreme court.

The attorney challenging that bill says he hopes to get a ruling within the next couple of weeks.

Maybe even before this special session ends.

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