By Sean Murphy
The Associated Press
OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma’s underfunded pension systems, the high number of working poor without health insurance and state employees who haven’t had an across-the-board pay raise in seven years are some of the dozens of topics that lawmakers want to explore before the 2014 legislative session begins in February.
Nearly 200 requests have been filed in the House and Senate for interim studies to take place over the next several months.
On Friday, House Speaker T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, approved 68 studies out of the 134 that were requested by individual House members. In the Senate, President Pro Tem Brian Bingman has assigned each of the 55 study requests to standing committees, where the chairman has the discretion of whether to proceed with a study.
“As committee chairmen, we are expected to have some increased knowledge and understanding of that particular area,” said Sen. Brian Crain, R-Tulsa, chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. “With that increased understanding, for those that come under health and human services, I can make a determination if those have some real merit.”
Among the requests that Crain will consider for his committee are ways to reduce Oklahoma’s high divorce rate, youth access to tobacco alternatives like electronic cigarettes, increasing organ donation and the certification process for dialysis centers.
Crain also is among several legislators who have requested interim studies on how the state can expand health insurance to cover some of the estimated 17 percent of Oklahomans currently uninsured. Crain co-authored a measure late last session that would have used a state tobacco tax earmarked for health care, combined with modest co-pays and federal Medicaid dollars, to expand the state’s Insure Oklahoma program for the working poor. However, the bill never was granted a hearing amid resistance from some conservative Republicans in the Legislature who oppose any attempt to draw down additional federal Medicaid dollars.
Crain said he hopes to study a consultant’s report that recommended ways to seek a federal waiver to expand the Insure Oklahoma program, along with what other states are doing that, like Oklahoma, have rejected an opportunity to expand Medicaid authorized under the federal Affordable Care Act.
“Until we reach a final decision on how we want to approach the working poor and making sure they have access to insurance in Oklahoma, we need to explore whatever options are available and figure out what the best approach is to take for the state,” Crain said.
Also expected to draw legislative scrutiny in the interim is a plan to overhaul the state’s pension systems, including a proposal to shift newly hired state workers into a 401k-style savings plan instead of the traditional defined benefit pension system currently in place. Gov. Mary Fallin vetoed a bill that would have given new hires the option of enrolling in a new type of defined contribution plan, saying the bill didn’t go far enough. Fallin also pushed last year for a proposal to consolidate the administrations of the state’s largest pension systems, but the measure never gained traction in the Legislature.
Another issue that went unresolved in the 2013 session — pay raises for state workers — also will be among the top priorities for legislators to study during the interim. Proposals to increase pay for Oklahoma Highway Patrol troopers and state prison guards easily cleared the House and Senate, but Fallin said she wanted first to see the results of an in-depth study on state worker pay.
A consulting firm, Kenning Consulting, already has been awarded a $77,000 contract to provide technical assistance and develop recommendations on state employee pay, and a report expected in the fall likely will be a part of any interim study on the issue.
State workers have not received an across-the-board pay hike since 2006, and state leaders, including Fallin, have said they don’t agree with such an approach for pay raises.
While the interim studies give legislators an opportunity to spend a few hours examining a particular issue, not all lawmakers are fans of the process. State Rep. Mike Reynolds said that while a handful of issues are worth exploring during the interim, most of the work could be done during slow periods of the legislative session. He also noted that legislators are reimbursed for travel costs when they attend an interim study at the Capitol.
“The legislators spend an hour or two studying something they could do during the regular session,” said Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City, who has requested an interim study on how the state treasurer’s Unclaimed Property Fund is managed. “I think the public probably sees through the idea that legislators have to have an interim study when they can’t even stay in the evening and work.
“In many situations, it’s to generate some sort of momentum for pet projects ... or rather than a member just running the bill or bringing it to the floor to be defeated, they request an interim study to save face.”