The 2012 legislative session convened last Monday and will run until the end of May (click here for a complete run-though of how this works in our handy Legislative Overview). With 1,934 new bills filed, it takes awhile before we know for certain which priorities will dominate the session. But now that our merry gang of bill-trackers have taken a first look, a few themes have emerged.
One is a subject more notable by its absence than its presence: immigration. Last year, some two dozen immigration bills were introduced, most looking to impose tighter law enforcement and verification restrictions on undocumented immigrants. Most of the bills were killed by House and Senate leadership over the course of session. Ultimately a single bill, HB 1446, emerged out of conference committee but was defeated on a bipartisan vote in the House.
Although the passage of restrictive immigration laws in Alabama and elsewhere last year has sparked a wave of new legislation in some states, it hasn’t happened here. Fewer than ten immigration-related bills were introduced this year. Three of these are currently empty ‘shell’ bills authored by Rep. Charles Ortega, who was tapped to steer the immigration issue this year and has indicated he sees no pressing need for more legislation on this issue. Rep. Randy Terrill and Sen. Ralph Shortey, who led last year’s charge for tougher immigration laws, filed only three bills this year: Rep. Terrill’s HB 3014 aims to enforce restrictions on the use of languages other than English (see our post on last year’s bill on this subject); Terrill’s HJR 1088 would amend the state constitution to allow bail to be denied to anyone who entered or remains in the country illegally; while Sen. Shortey’s SB 1569 would prohibit legal immigrants or anyone who is not a natural-born citizen from running for public office. While bills from last session that are dormant can be revived under certain procedural circumstances, it seems unlikely that immigration will re-emerge as a front-burner issue in 2012.
Immigrants may hope to escape the session unscathed, but the prospects for poor people look bleaker. At least nine bills have been filed to require drug testing of applicants for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families cash assistance program, with some, such as HB 2388 by Rep. Guy Liebmann, requiring the test be paid for by the applicant for assistance (see this 2009 blog post on earlier incarnations of this proposal). HB 3125, by Rep. Jeff Hickman, would require drug tests of all applicants for unemployed insurance, with denial of benefit to those who refuse or fail the drug test. Other bills aim to crack down on alleged fraud in public benefit programs by imposing new penalties on those who falsely obtain unemployment benefits and by creating a photo ID pilot program for recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Meanwhile, many of the major tax bills introduced this session would offset cuts to the top income tax rate by abolishing a number of important tax credits claimed by hundreds of thousands of low- and moderate-income Oklahomans, including the earned income tax credit, sales tax relief credit and child tax credit. These proposals could raise taxes for a family of four making $25,000 a year by over $600.
No subject, however, has lawmakers more fired up (sorry!) than guns, with close to 50 gun-related bills introduced this session. Numerous bills would expand the state’s open carry laws to include more people (legislators, school administrators, assistant attorneys general) in more places (public and private elementary and secondary schools, college campuses). Several bills would expand where people may legally possess unlicensed firearms (a motor home, RV, any of their own private property). Others would expand the scope of the state’s self-defense act, allowing the use of physical or deadly force in more locations (including houses of worship) and under more circumstances. Senator Shortey seems to be leading the pack with at least eight gun-related bills, followed by Senator Steve Russell with six.
We’ll follow these issues and keep you posted as legislative session unfolds.