The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

February 3, 2013

Workers’ compensation and tax rates top agenda of Okla. GOP

Staff and wire reports
Enid News & Eagle

ENID, Okla. — Republicans enjoying a tighter grip on the Oklahoma Legislature say they hope to cut taxes, overhaul the workers’ compensation system and increase school funding when the 2013 session opens today. Doing so, they say, will improve the state’s business climate.

The GOP holds a 72-29 majority in the House and a 32-16 edge in the Senate — both the largest Republican majorities ever — and the governor also is a Republican.

“Our policies have been working,” Gov. Mary Fallin said. “Our economy is thriving, and I do think it is in large part because of the legislation we’ve passed that is more business-friendly, more job-friendly.

“We’re going to continue to put our foot on the gas pedal to move Oklahoma to an even stronger, more prosperous time.”

Fallin will deliver her State of the State speech this afternoon and intends to highlight the state’s job growth as it emerges from a recent recession — and ask for more pro-business changes.

Last year, she failed in her bold move to slash the state’s income tax rate and gut various exemptions and deductions. She intends to make a simpler request today.

“We’re looking at trying to get a tax cut through this year, but one that we can afford and one that is responsible,” Fallin said.

New House Speaker T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, and Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, both said they could support a responsible income tax cut. Shannon said Oklahoma’s economy has grown and income tax collections have climbed since a one-quarter of 1 percent cut to the state’s top rate took effect last year.

“I think (tax cuts) grow the economy and wind up producing more revenue for the state,” Shannon said. “I think you can go too far, too quickly. You can go too deep, too quickly. I think we can be thoughtful about it like we have in the past.”

Enid legislators also are optimistic that it can be done, since both the House and Senate leadership are focused on the same things.

State Sen. Patrick Anderson, R-Enid, said because both the House and Senate are focused on the same areas, the chances are good it will be done.

“We want to tackle workers’ compensation reform (and) switch (it) to an administrative system. I’d like to see that get done quickly and put it on the governor’s desk early in the session,” Anderson said. With excess money coming into the state’s treasury, Anderson also wants to look at giving more money to education.

“Our schools are bursting at the seams. They have more students than they’ve ever had, with less money,” Anderson said.

Anderson said there is a process they must go through, and it is time consuming, but there are no reasons the Legislature cannot come together and get it all done.

He even believes it is possible to complete everything a month early.

Enid Republican State Rep. Mike Jackson also does not believe other legislation will get in the way. With a number of states’ rights bills introduced, he thinks they are both aimed in the right direction.

“Everything is in place where it needs to be to make Oklahoma grow,” Jackson said. He said the state will continue to hold the line in the areas Oklahomans feel are important in government, which he said makes the job easier than in some other states.

“Because we’ve lived within our means, (that) makes it easier. We will get there a lot quicker and easier than some states,” Jackson said.

Although federal spending continues to be without direction, he said, the Legislature is limited.

“Both the Senate and the House are limited in every facet of government, and I an optimistic we can get it done,” Jackson said.

State Rep. John Enns believes it can be done, but said it may not be easy because of the different personalities in the Legislature.

“The sky’s the limit on what we can get done, but everyone else has a different idea. We must work with 151 people, all with a different idea in their head. If we can come together on common sense stuff ... but it’s hard getting everyone together on common-sense issues,” he said.

Still, Enns, R-Enid, is optimistic the Legislature will focus on the important issues and complete the work. He said he hears more from business managers about workers’ compensation reform than any other issue. Oklahoma is behind the rest of the states in that area.

“I don’t know it if has the highest claim rate or not, but it’s way up there,” Enns said.

Shannon’s selection to head the powerful House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Scott Martin, of Norman, said he plans to propose another one-quarter of 1 percent cut to the income tax rate, which would drop the rate to 5 percent. Such a cut would cost the state an estimated $125 million annually, according to Oklahoma Tax Commission.

Based on preliminary projections, legislators this year will have about $7 billion to spread among various agencies beginning July 1 — about $170 million more than last year. The agencies have submitted budget requests seeking $1.4 billion more.

Republican leaders all have said increased funding for common education will be a priority next year, but it’s doubtful State Superintendent Janet Barresi will get all the money she has requested. During a budget hearing last week, Barresi asked for $40 million in additional funding just to finish the current fiscal year, and another $289 million increase in her budget for next year.

Staff Writer Robert Barron and AP writer Sean Murphy contributed to this story.