Transcript Staff Writer

Education. Health care. Jobs. Taxes. Roads and bridges. Worker's compensation and lawsuit reform.

With those vital issues and more confronting Oklahomans, the speaker of the House of Representatives believes there is one solution to the state's many concerns: making it perfect for pecan picking.

House Speaker Todd Hiett, a Kellyville Republican running next year for lieutenant governor, told the Norman Business Association Friday morning that pro-business legislation is vital for the state's success.

"If we don't lay a foundation of policy that enables you to be successful," he said to the businesspeople, "... then we have failed as a state."

To illustrate, Hiett said his three kids each year must harvest the numerous pecans that fall at the family farm. The tedious job is a pain in the grass because they must get down on the ground to pick the pecans and it takes so long to get them all.

The family normally gives away their bounty, but not last fall when the price for pecans skyrocketed past a dollar per pound. That bit of news caught young Jimmy Hiett's attention.

"We couldn't keep him from picking pecans," the speaker said, "and he recruited kids from the neighborhood to pick them, too.

"Now it was the same awful job," he continued.

"They still had to get down on the ground; nothing had changed. The only difference is my 14-year-old son saw an opportunity to make a profit. I think the people of Oklahoma are just like that."

Hiett said the Legislature tried to create the same lucrative environment for Oklahoma in its 2005 session by cutting taxes and passing bills to help business.

The action included cutting the state income tax rate from 6.65 to 6.25 percent -- which he said will save taxpayers $100 million per year -- workers' compensation reform Hiett said will save businesses $120 million a year, and increasing spending on state roads and bridges by $170 million per year within the next four years.

Some major bills mentioned by Hiett and passed by the GOP-led House, such as the $475 million higher education bond and one that will bring millions of Medicaid-matching federal dollars to Oklahoma hospitals, were started and nurtured by Democratic lawmakers before passing with late changes from Republicans.

Hiett criticized the Democratic-led lottery inititiative, saying it will put financial stress on some Oklahomans while producing $100 million in revenue instead of the projected $300 million, and tried to defend his decision not to call a special session this summer for additional funding to understaffed prisons.

In answering a question from the audience, Hiett said prisons had been mismanaged for a decade and Republicans now have a plan to address corrections.

He said the GOP House leadership is having a hard time getting the Senate to meet with them, yet hopes to have an agreement in place before the session opens in February.

Nevertheless, Hiett said more change is coming. The biggest issues for next year's session will be lawsuit and Medicaid reform, and ending the estate tax. Oklahoma is one of just 18 states that still has the tax, he said, and it most affects middle-class families that already paid taxes on the estate year after year.

"It's just wrong to tax death ... and it's another red X on Oklahoma, especially with retirees," he said.

The Legislature also will consider setting aside more money to repair county roads and bridges, which Hiett said accounts for many of the worst in the state, by bumping the county share of motor vehicle registration fess from 15 to 30 percent. The difference this year would have meant an additional $85 million for county roads.

That's a lot of pecans.

James S. Tyree 366-3539 jtyree@normantranscript.com

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