Legislative Update – Knee-Jerk Protectionism Blocks Legitimate Reform

After years of doing things one way, some Oklahoma officeholders have been slow to warm to the reform measures the Republican-led Legislature are trying to enact.

Gov. Brad Henry’s recent veto of a lawsuit reform measure is the latest example of this trend. The legislation, which is carefully worded to target only frivolous lawsuits, simply requires that an expert sign off on the validity of a lawsuit before it is taken to court. The bill makes so much sense that the governor signed into law a similar measure in 2004 that targeted only medical malpractice lawsuits. The 2004 law was thrown out in 2006 for unconstitutionally applying to only one industry. This year’s law therefore was written to apply to all industries.

It is not unexpected to see this type of knee-jerk protectionism of old systems, but it is disappointing. Though there is nothing in either party’s platform that would place a lawmaker against lawsuit reform or government modernization efforts, the vote on those reforms has been divided along partisan lines. My belief is that it is rooted in a fear of changing the status quo, especially when that change comes from the opposite party.

Take for example the argument against tort reform. Trial lawyers have muddied the water by marching out truly rare cases of severe medical malpractice and trying to create a feeling that Oklahoma is rampant with bad doctors who are held at bay by the current system. Data has been gathered to show the true effects of changing the law will actually benefit people with legitimate cases, but the parade of sob stories and unfounded fear that some critical-but-unidentified right of average Oklahomans will be imperiled has caused the minority party to vote against the reform in the Legislature and the governor to veto legislation that he has acknowledged is needed.

A second example of how instinct is being used in place of information is in the significant opposition to government modernization. Republican lawmakers received debate and opposition on such common-sense measures as centralizing information technology services and allowing the state to renegotiate contracts.

The final example of this phenomenon is voter identification reform. The lawmaker who introduced this legislation pointed out states that had enacted similar reform and had seen record turnout in subsequent elections. It seemed like a good argument to deter the legitimate if protectionist concern that changing the system might disenfranchise voters. The legislation divided the Legislature again along party lines and was vetoed by the governor.

The changes that the Republican-led Legislature is trying to enact are meant to fix problems that have emerged over time in the status quo. Reform should be embraced by both parties, especially when the change is not nonpartisan in nature. Opponents of such measures should take a hard look at their positions and make sure they are not becoming roadblocks in the path to progress in Oklahoma.

Thank you for stopping by my office, Joy Rhodes of Watonga. I would also like to thank the Oklahoma FFA choir, who sang beautifully at the state Capitol recently. I am always excited to meet with visiting FFA members.

As always, I would love to hear from you. I can be reached at the Capitol at (405) 557-7407.

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