Staff and wire reports

Members of the Oklahoma House will be busy this summer and fall as they convene hearings on 120 government studies authorized by House Speaker Chris Benge.

Benge approved interim studies covering a wide range of issues that are important to his conservative Republican caucus, including government modernization, health care, public safety and economic development.

But he also denied 43 other requests, including some sought by Democrats who fear they may have been rejected because they do not reflect the political goals of the GOP’s House majority. Of those interim studies not approved, 25 were requested by Democrats.

Issues Democrats wished to explore include ad valorem tax support for community colleges, analyzing the cost of financing and building public schools, an analysis of the cost of inpatient and outpatient care for Oklahomans with autism and improving the emergency management fund that pays the cost of disaster recovery.

“I was disappointed that some of those subjects did not get covered in interim studies,” said House Democratic Leader Danny Morgan of Prague, whose own interim study request to explore the possibility of creating satellite winery tasting rooms to help the state’s fledgling wineries was rejected.

Morgan said he hopes political considerations were not behind the decisions to reject the Democratic requests.

“We’ve supplied them with an opportunity and they said: ‘No!”’ Morgan said. “We’ve got all of the fall to have a good bill come out.”

An advocate for autistic children said political differences were behind rejection of an interim study request by Rep. Terry Harrison, D-McAlester, who wanted to analyze the cost of inpatient and outpatient care for Oklahomans with autism and look at the costs of viable alternatives for treatment.

“The study will seek to find the best possible result for Oklahoma’s autistic children and for Oklahoma’s taxpayers.” Harrison wrote in his request.

But Benge and other GOP House leaders consistently have opposed a health insurance coverage mandate for the diagnosis and treatment of autistic children, claiming it will drive up the cost of health insurance and make it unaffordable for many Oklahomans.

“There will not be any approval of these studies. We knew that going in,” said Wayne Rohde, the father of an autistic child and the namesake for Nick’s Law, an autism coverage mandate that has passed the Senate in recent years but been blocked by Republican House leaders.

“They don’t want to have that. We will have that in the Senate, though,” Rohde said.

Rep. Mike Jackson, R-Enid, said many of the issues Democrats are concerned about could fit into the context of some interim studies already going. Jackson is conducting two interim studies. One will explore property taxes and the array of issues surrounding them. He said his study is broad and could include using ad valorem taxes to help support community colleges.

The other study by Jackson will look at licensing musical therapists in the state and standardizing their training.

Senate President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City, has approved 34 interim studies, including two dealing with insurance coverage for autistic children sought by Democratic Sen. Jay Paul Gumm of Durant.

The studies will explore Oklahoma high-risk pool coverage of autism spectrum disorder diagnosis and treatment and how the state’s economy would fare with autism insurance mandates.

Sen. Patrick Anderson, R-Enid, said he requested two interim studies this year, but only one was granted. Anderson will study, along with a House sponsor, the status of military retirements in divorce proceedings. He admitted it is controversial. In the Senate, Anderson said it seemed to him that requests for interim studies were fairly equal between Republicans and Democrats.

Rep. Ed Cannaday, D-Porum, said his request to study the possibility of creating property tax support for community colleges may have been rejected because it suggested an increase in taxes.

Cannaday wanted to research the possibility of ad valorem support for the operational costs for community colleges in their service area, as defined by the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education.

Cannaday said he has three community colleges in his area: Connors State College in Warner, Eastern Oklahoma State College in Wilburton and Carl Albert State College in Poteau. Although Oklahoma community colleges serve 50 percent of the higher education student body, they receive only 10 percent of the higher education budget, Cannaday said.

“It would be nice if we could have a source of revenue for our community colleges,” he said. But the idea could stir a turf war with the state’s CareerTech system, which is mainly funded from ad valorem taxes, Cannaday said.

“I wasn’t directing it CareerTech,” he said. “It could be that fear of anything that looks like raising taxes.”

Staff writer Robert Barron and The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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