By James Neal, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle
ENID, Okla. —
Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt spoke to Enid Noon AMBUCS Friday, sharing his thoughts on federalism, workers’ compensation fraud and the death penalty.
Pruitt opened his remarks on the expansion of federal power — particularly executive power — with a quote from John Adams: “The jaws of power are always open to devour, and her arm is always stretched out, if possible, to destroy the freedom of thinking, speaking and writing.”
“Too much power concentrated in the hands of too few people directly affects your liberty,” Pruitt told the AMBUCS.
He centered his comments on federalism on federal health care mandates under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act; centralization of American banking under the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act; and the possibility of Environmental Protection Agency regulation of hydraulic fracturing in the oil and gas industry.
Health care mandates
Pruitt joined attorneys general from 27 other states in filing lawsuits against the Affordable Care Act after he took office in January 2011.
According to a press release from Pruitt’s office, he challenged the health care act’s constitutionality under the Commerce Clause, specifically whether the federal government had the power to mandate individuals to buy health insurance.
A June 2012 Supreme Court decision held the federal government had exceeded its power under the Commerce Clause, but granted the federal government authority to implement the individual health care mandate as a tax under Congress’ taxing power.
Pruitt said Friday the lawsuit “bore dividends” for Oklahoma and the other states, even though the ACA was upheld.
“Governors, before last June, didn’t even have the ability to say ‘I’m in’ or ‘I’m opting out of Medicaid expansion,’” Pruitt said.
He said the lawsuit gave Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin and other governors the ability to make decisions for their states on whether or not to expand Medicaid services.
Pruitt said Friday his office still is opposing the ACA through a revised version of the state’s original lawsuit.
Last September Pruitt’s office amended the state’s complaint to challenge the ability of the Internal Revenue Service to collect taxes for the individual health care mandate.
According to a September 2012 OAG press release, Oklahoma is “asking the Court to recognize that because the Supreme Court deemed the health care act’s individual mandate a tax that it no longer conflicts with Oklahoma’s constitutional provision that no law or rule can ‘compel any person, employer or health care provider to participate in any health care system.’”
Pruitt said having the IRS collect taxes for the ACA individual health care mandate violates both the Administrative Procedures Act and conflicts with the ACA.
“The law must be followed the agencies charged with carrying it out,” Pruitt said. “Federal agencies should follow the laws Congress has passed. After all, that’s their job.”
Energy and the EPA
Pruitt addressed concerns among some attendees Friday the EPA could begin regulating hydraulic fracturing in the oil and gas industry.
He said the states have “been in the driver’s seat” and have been regulating hydraulic fracturing for more than six decades.
“Now, you have the EPA in Washington, D.C., studying whether they should insert themselves into the process of hydraulic fracturing,” Pruitt said. “We have resources like the Corporation Commission that have been responsible for regulating that activity for years. We’ve been doing it and doing it well, and we have primacy.
“Think about the economic impact that will have, to get the ... federal government on top of the state regulations.”
Pruitt said the United States has the capacity to become energy independent within the next 10 years, “and the only thing standing in the way is regulations and barriers from government out of Washington, D.C.”
Pruitt reviewed Friday his office’s efforts to stem implementation of Dodd-Frank.
Last September Pruitt joined, along with several other attorneys general, a lawsuit originally filed by the National Bank of Big Spring (Texas) in June 2012.
That lawsuit, which is pending, challenges the authority of federal regulators to close and liquidate financial institutions with little notice to the bank’s investors.
“Dodd-Frank gives regulators unprecedented and unchecked authority to make significant decisions that affect Oklahoma families and businesses with little, if any, meaningful ability for our state pensions and community banks to recover,” Pruitt said in a September 2012 press release after joining the lawsuit. “We must challenge Dodd-Frank to protect Oklahoma taxpayers and our financial stability. The law puts at risk the pension contributions and tax dollars that the people have entrusted us to protect.”
“Our ability to grow the economy in Oklahoma is going to be affected because of laws like Dodd-Frank,” Pruitt said.
He said the centralization of banking authority in the federal government, through Dodd-Frank and other laws, has led to a reduction in community banks, taking capital further away from small businesses.
Pruitt said there once were more than 12,000 community banks in the nation — a number that has been cut to about 7,000 and is predicted to shrink to 2,000.
Pruitt said between 60 and 70 percent of all banking capital in the U.S. now is held in about 20 banks, “and that’s dangerous.”
Pruitt’s comments on fraud centered on the state’s workers’ compensation system, and possible reforms coming in this legislative session.
He said fraud “is real, and it is substantial in the workers’ compensation system.”
Pruitt said he’s hopeful legislative reforms will make the workers’ compensation system more of an administrative process, and less of a judicial process.
“Lawyers and doctors should not be the focus of the workers’ compensation system,” Pruitt said, “and today, they are.”
Pruitt said his office has increased prosecution of all types of fraud by 62 percent since he took office.
“We’ve gone after all types of fraud,” Pruitt said. “We’re sending a message that you can’t take advantage of employers and taxpayers in the system, and if you do, you’re going to be held accountable.”
Pruitt said violent crime is on the rise in Oklahoma, particularly along the Interstate 44 corridor, due to increased drug trafficking.
“If we don’t get a handle around meth and the trafficking that goes into the drug trade, and the violence that goes with it, it will stifle our economic growth,” Pruitt said. “More importantly, it will make you and I feel less safe.”
Pruitt said state and local authorities need to provide adequate funding for police departments to address rising violent crime rates.
“Boots on the ground matter,” Pruitt said, “and we need to make sure our public safety folks are well-funded and equipped.”
Pruitt commended Enid and Norman for having dedicated public safety sales taxes, and for a corresponding reduction in violent crime.
“We need to learn from cities like Enid and Norman,” Pruitt said.
The Second Amendment
In response to an audience question, Pruitt said he will be watching developments in federal efforts to implement more stringent gun controls.
“I am concerned that perhaps they will take it places that are inconsistent with the Second Amendment,” Pruitt said.
He said he is actively reviewing federal gun control proposals, but to date, “there has been no action taken that would give the state grounds to respond.”
Pruitt said tighter gun control laws likely would affect law-abiding citizens more than criminals.
“Criminals always seem to have access to guns,” Pruitt said. “The people who bear the brunt of new laws are the law-abiding citizens.”
Pruitt said the state should focus on being better equipped to help “soft targets” such as schools and churches, to prevent and respond to violence.
The death penalty
Pruitt said the state needs to streamline the appeals process in death penalty cases.
“Justice delayed is justice denied, and our system takes way too long to carry out the most serious process,” Pruitt said.
“We need to make sure they receive their due process,” Pruitt said of death row inmates, “but once that’s been accomplished, we need to make sure we’re not delaying the process and re-victimizing the victims over and over again.”
During the question-and-answer portion of Friday’s meeting, Enid attorney Robert Faulk asked Pruitt if he was familiar with the case of Milke vs. Ryan, an Arizona case from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in which a woman was exonerated after spending 22 years on death row.
Pruitt said he was familiar with the case, but he also was familiar with cases in which victims and their families “had to wait way too long for justice.”
“Of course we don’t want to see someone wrongfully convicted, but what I see personally in the appeals process is the opposite happening,” Pruitt said.
Pruitt said the courts should be left to decide guilt or innocence, and to decide appeals in a timely fashion.
“There is a very important role for the courts to play,” Pruitt said. “Lets let the court system do its work, and let it play out.”
In a brief interview after Pruitt’s address, Faulk said the recent case out of Arizona highlights the need for more thorough, not shorter, appeals processes.
“Aside from the fact it took 22 years to get this woman off death row, and her civil rights were horribly violated, how does he square that with further reform on death penalty cases?” Faulk asked, referring to Pruitt’s comments.
“If you speed up the appeals process, you increase the chance that innocent people will be put to death,” Faulk said, “and I would rather take 20 years to complete the process than have one innocent person put to death.”