NORMAN — I read in the morning paper that the Legislature finished the work of their special session by passing a number of tort reform measures.
In my lifetime, I can only remember the Legislature being called into special session four or five times. As memory serves, previous special sessions were called to address a crisis directly affecting the safety and welfare of the citizens of our state.
Please remember that Gov. Mary Fallin announced in her call for a special session that the legislation was critical to making Oklahoma more business friendly (the same mantra she recited again and again when running for governor).
I have yet to find anyone who believes that tort reform rises to the level of a crisis. In fact, many are worried that these reforms will serve to reduce the average citizen’s ability to secure appropriate and equitable relief from civil and employer wrongful acts.
At the same time, there are several issues that might rise to the level of crisis deserving immediate attention that have not been addressed. For instance:
1. Education: Our public schools, technical training centers, state colleges and universities receive less funding today than any time in this century. The number of students per classroom is growing while state funding keeps shrinking. Teacher pay ranks in the bottom five of the whole United States. It is no wonder that teachers are moving out of Oklahoma at an extraordinary rate.
2. Prisons and jails: Several reputable studies forecast serious problems up to and including prison riots (remember 1973?) in Oklahoma’s near future. Our jails, juvenile detention centers and prisons are at capacity. Most of the prisons were built in the 1930s and have not been rehabbed since the 1970s as a result of federal oversight following the 1973 prison riot. Without exception, correctional facilities are woefully under-staffed and employees are underpaid.
3. Health care: Oklahoma ranks among the five worst states in the nation for the percentage of our citizens who cannot afford medical insurance and cannot access preventative services. DHS social workers’ caseloads are among the heaviest in America. In addition, Oklahoma has a waiting list of more than 5,000 people with developmental disabilities critically in need of residential-based care.
4. Mental health: At a time when Oklahoma soldiers are returning home needing treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and the number of addicts and alcoholics needing treatment are at an all-time high, Oklahoma mental health inpatient and outpatient facilities stand abandoned and those that are still open are understaffed and under-funded.
5. Criminal justice: Tough-on-crime laws make great headlines, but experience indicates that they are ill-advised. We are so busy locking up drug users and other people we are mad at that we have to release the really dangerous people we should be afraid of: murderers, rapists, abusers and child beaters.
These and several other issues are really critical to the health and welfare of the residents of Oklahoma and are worthy of a special legislative session.
Instead, we have squandered $150,000-plus passing non-critical tort reform. Of course, this is my opinion. I could be wrong.
Bill Huntington lives in Norman.