New year: New hope for Oklahoma

For the first time in Oklahoma history, Republicans will control both houses of the state Legislature when the House and Senate convene in February. This creates a dramatic new opportunity to enact "center-right" policies that never made it past Democrats who controlled the upper chamber for 101 years.

The man in the middle for the two years Republicans shared powers with Senate Democrats is now the man at the top. Oklahoma City Republican Glenn Coffee, President Pro Tempore, outlined reasons he is optimistic, and the particular reason he is concerned progress may be limited.

Concerning lawsuit reform, he told me in a recent interview, "We’ve got to do something about the governor’s position. I am trying to find out if we have a chance of real reform through the legislative process, with the governor’s signature at the end, this year. If that is not achievable, it might be the right time to take a proposal directly to the people. Oklahoma needs tort reform, and we need it now."

The American Tort Reform Association, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization, recently placed Oklahoma on its 2008/2009 "judicial hellholes" watch list. Coffee is not predicting failure: "We are negotiating with the governor. I have a longstanding relationship with him from days we were both in the Legislature.

I respect him. I think on this issue he feels trapped. He gets some trouble, some heat, from the Left even for talking to us. Beyond that, he was simply adamant to exclude certain items from lawsuit reform that are actually terribly important to make it meaningful."

Coffee believes Gov. Brad Henry "knows this is important to the business community, and there’s a certain momentum for it even in the media. But I have a sense he feels caught in the middle and might feel it’s easier to say no than to find a way to say yes."

Elements of lawsuit reform, within reach based on recent sessions, include joint and several liability, restricting the percentage of tort judgments to a discernible percentage of fault. Beyond that, "Class action reform is what the working lawyers indicate is essential. Bringing in federal rules on summary judgment. Caps on non-economic damages, which both the medical and the business community consider fundamental." Coffee also supports "a certificate of merit that would apply to medical and business cases."

As for the "loser pays" concept, Coffee was candid: "I am for it. However, some of the business community argue it’s a sword for the other side but not a shield for our side. It’s certainly something worth talking about. It was not in the version that went to the governor last year, which we thought had a decent chance of getting his signature. So, it might be a bridge too far."

On other policy concerns, Coffee is hopeful about school choice proposals in the Senate, where a bipartisan majority last year backed scholarships to give greater choices to students in poor-performing schools.

"I am hopeful to get some bills through this year," Coffee said. "The scholarship program you’ve written about in the past is one. There is room for further improvements on charter school requirements. And, I believe that the longstanding proposal for deregulation of public school districts is something the governor might sign and even support."
The Senate Republican caucus was still establishing a timetable for key issue consideration at the time of our interview. Asked to rank his personal priorities, Coffee said, "Tort reform is a priority without question. Education reform, to include choice and a better environment for our charter schools. Accountability and openness in government, those are issues that have been important to me all the way through my career. We can do a better job to assure transparency and openness in government."

He continued, "Another priority, frankly, is transportation. The money situation may not allow us to do much in the way of new planning, but I believe it’s really essential to protect the gains we’ve made incrementally in repairing bridges and doing important road work. I believe we can and must move forward on market-oriented reforms to make health care more affordable to more of our working people and all our citizens. Of course, we’ll also be working hard on energy-related questions to do what the state can to assure strong growth in sources of energy and help to our energy sector."

It’s a new year, giving new hope to enact a new agenda for Oklahoma.

About the author:
Patrick B. McGuigan (M.A. in history, Oklahoma State University) is a research fellow at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank. He is the author of two books and the editor of seven.  McGuigan is a Contributing Editor for Tulsa Today and managing editor of The City Sentinel, an Oklahoma City weekly.