By Joy Hampton
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — Oklahoma’s new workers’ compensation law will stand. Business leaders and a strong Republican contingent touted the decision as a victory for Oklahoma on Monday after the Oklahoma Supreme Court dismissed a constitutional challenge to Senate Bill 1062.
“I think that this is a fitting and worthy end to the workers’ compensation debate,” Norman Chamber of Commerce President John Woods said. “I think we needed to have a final answer and stability to the system. We will see reduced workers’ compensation costs and a less burdensome system, which is a win for Oklahoma.”
The court ruled that Senate Bill 1062 “is not unconstitutional as a multiple-subject bill” and further stated “the Legislature has exercised proper authority in a matter over which it has power to act by adopting a code for future execution of workers’ compensation law.”
“The ruling today is great news for economic development and jobs in the state of Oklahoma,” State Insurance Commissioner John Doak said. “Oklahoma currently has one of the highest average costs of workers’ compensation benefits in the nation, which has had an enormous impact on our state economy.”
Most Republicans supported the bill, calling it badly needed reform, but some Democrats said they feared workers would not get the relief they need following job injuries.
The legislation was signed into law May 6 by Gov. Mary Fallin. It was passed in the House by a 74-24 vote on April 24. The final vote in the Senate was 35-12 on April 30.
Voting against in the Senate were 11 Democrats and a single Republican, Sen. Harry Coates. Sen. John Sparks, D-Norman, was one of the dissenting votes, as was minority leader Sen. Sean Burrage, D-Claremore.
The legal challenge came from Coates, R-Seminole, and Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman, along with the Professional Firefighters of Oklahoma.
Sparks said it will be interesting to see how the change in handling workers’ comp claims performs in the long run.
“It’s one thing to challenge a law on hypothetical situations,” Sparks said. “It’s quite different when you have actual circumstances that may have unconstitutional results. Like any other law, we’ll see how this plays out.”
Other local lawmakers are pleased with the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruling and are convinced SB 1062 introduces necessary reform to Oklahoma’s workers’ comp system.
“This law is critically needed across our state to drive down costs and make Oklahoma more economically competitive with other states, all while continuing to protect workers injured on the job,” said Sen. Anthony Sykes, R-Moore, who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and carried SB 1062 on the floor. “This law has already shown a significant decrease to rates in Oklahoma, and we anticipate more to come. We are encouraged by this ruling and look forward to moving ahead as soon as possible.”
The court rejected allegations that the law contains multiple subjects in violation of the Constitution’s single-subject rule that legislation address just one subject. Rather, the ruling says all sections of the law are inter-related and refer to the single subject of workers’ compensation or the way employees may ensure protection against work-related injuries.
“The new law has already shown significant workers’ compensation insurance rate decreases across the state and will continue to bring positive change to our state by ensuring Oklahoma is one of the best places to do business,” Doak said.
The current workers’ compensation system will now be phased out in favor of the new administrative system, which will go into effect in February.
“I am pleased that the Supreme Court has taken the time to consider the constitutionality and the merits of this new system,” said Speaker T.W. Shannon, author of SB 1062. “These reforms create a new and modern system that protects workers and is fair to Oklahoma businesses.
“The archaic and confrontational system this state has relied on in the past did little for workers, hurt business and only benefited the handful that profited from such a dysfunctional system. This ruling ensures Oklahoma is moving in the right direction.”
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