New legislators taking on overlooked problems (Capitol Update)

The legislative pace picked up considerably last week, the second week of session. Bills that do not get a hearing in their assigned committee on or before February 28th will be dead for this session. That means the author and those interested in a bill have only two more meetings of a committee to get the bill heard and passed out of committee. There’s not too much pressure this week, but next week will be hectic. It’s like the difference between the 3rd and 4th quarter. In the 3rd quarter you’re starting to feel the pressure, but in the 4th it’s “do or die” time for a bill.

The legislative calendar can be brutal. It usually starts in late summer, early fall with discussion of issues for the upcoming session being aired out. Meetings, ideas, bill language move at a leisurely pace. This whole process gets somewhat sidetracked in an election year which pushes a lot of that preparation up to November. The action accelerates in early December with the bill request deadline and bill introduction in January. When session starts, it’s like opening a fire hose. Bills on which authors have spent a lot of time, and put their hearts into, may end up dead for the session because they fail to meet the upcoming February 28th committee deadline. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s what you get with a part-time legislature.

This year’s crop of bills reflects the priorities of an unusually large group of new and almost new legislators. The priorities include a willingness to work on social issues that in the past may have been overlooked. For example, HB 1018 by Rep. Marcus McEntire, R-Duncan, that requires each school district to provide age-appropriate instruction about HIV/AIDS education and related issues, passed out of the House Education Committee. HB 1013 by Rep. Carol Bush, R-Tulsa, that increases the number of ombudsmen in the Long-Term Care program at DHS, passed out of the Health Services and Long-Term Care Committee.

HB 1074 by Rep. Brian Hill, R-Mustang, that requires DHS to verify the applicability of the Indian Child Welfare Act within 3 months of a child being taken into custody, passed the Children, Youth and Family Services Committee. HB 1328 by Rep. Kelly Albright, D-Midwest City that broadens the ability of child-placing agencies to recruit, certify or provide services for kinship foster care, also passed the Children, Youth and Family Services Committee.

These, and many other bills considered last week are not the kind of bills that generate headlines and turn out demonstrators at the Capitol. But they represent the efforts of serious newer legislators working on problems they see from their own experience or that have been called to their attention by others. The breadth of bills this session is encouraging. Real people problems like health care, criminal justice reform, education funding, and services to people surviving at the margins seem to be on the minds of many legislators. Their efforts will take time, but they will make a difference.


Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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