Oklahoma Senators Spar Over Workers’ Comp Bill

March 25, 2004

Oklahoma Senate Republican leaders made a case in a news conference at the State Capitol that the Senate’s Democrat leadership is refusing to allow a committee chairman access to a landmark workers’ compensation reform bill.

Meanwhile, a leading Senate Democrat says they are just moving cautiously because of the complexity of the issue.

According to the Oklahoma Senate Communications Division, House Bill 2619 was assigned by the Senate’s Democrat leadership to the Senate Judiciary Committee, but the Republicans say Judiciary Chairman Jerry Smith, R-Tulsa, has not been allowed to hear the legislation in his committee.

Senate GOP Leader James A. Williamson, R-Tulsa, said the refusal indicates intent on the part of the Democrats to kill the bill. Senate Assistant Republican Floor Leader Scott Pruitt, R-Broken Arrow, accused the Democrats of being more interested in protecting trial lawyers than passing “pro-jobs legislation.”

The Republicans contend that Oklahoma’s workers’ comp system is one of the most costly in the nation for employers while workers’ receive some of the lowest benefits.

House Bill 2619, authored by Pruitt and Rep. Ron Peterson, R-Broken Arrow, overwhelmingly passed the House of Representatives on March 11 by a 95 to 1 vote. The bill must receive a committee hearing next week or it is dead for the year.

The bill could cut state employers’ workers compensation insurance costs by upwards of $100 million according to the National Council on Compensation Insurance.

In response to the Republican criticism, Democratic Senator Cal Hobson, the Oklahoma Senate’s President Pro Tempore, issued the following statement:

“The issue is a complicated one and Oklahoma has made more progress on addressing the costs associated with our system than almost any state in the nation in the last decade. I don’t think I need to remind Senator Pruitt that for a number of years he championed a completely different style of reform. He told us his administrative courts plan like those adopted in Texas and Florida—if we would just take his word for it and enact it—would solve all our ills. We chose instead to move cautiously in the area of reform and have made great strides.”

“Texas and Florida rank in the top six states in workers’ comp rates. Texas is literally in crisis in its workers’ compensation system.

“Now, Senator Pruitt is championing another all-inclusive panacea for worker’s compensation reform. This time, he says, he’s found the silver bullet. The mere fact that this bright young lawyer is singing a different reform tune today than he did just two years ago, is evidence that the issue is complex and that we should proceed into this arena with caution and not rush to put into law the latest, greatest cure-all de jour.”

“I certainly haven’t closed the door on a meaningful discourse on workers’ compensation reform this session or on House Bill 2619 at this point. Speaker Adair and I also have a bill that’s still a viable vehicle for workers’ compensation reform legislation. The titles are off both bills and it’s still possible that later in the session we’ll be able to address this issue. If we can find ways to reduce the costs of our system while protecting the rights of injured workers, then we can continue down the path we began almost a decade ago.”

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