Corporate Amnesty Bill Moves Forward

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As much of the world rejects the corporate-dominated reality and market fundamentalism that ruined our national economy, some Oklahoma politicians want to reward big businesses and deny people legal rights.

The Oklahoma Senate Judiciary Committee recently passed House Bill 1603, a Republican-backed measure that would cap noneconomic damages in lawsuits at $300,000 and establish a 10-year limit on product liability lawsuits. Democrats Kenneth Corn (Poteau) and Charlie Laster (Shawnee) voted against the bill, which will now be considered by the full Senate.

Gov. Brad Henry vetoed a similar Republican bill last year.

In essence, people will be denied basic legal rights and big insurance companies will reap the benefits if the bill becomes law. Proponents of the corporate amnesty bill say it will lower insurance costs, but that’s simply not true, according to OK Watchdog, a consumer advocacy group.

OK Watchdog argues:

Should HB 1603 become law, economic growth will be unchanged. Doctors' medical malpractice premiums will not decrease. Health care will not be more affordable or more accessible.

In addition, insurance companies will benefit the most. According to OK Watchdog:

If profits in states without noneconomic damage caps were the same as those in states with caps, insurance companies would have made an additional $9.2 billion in 2005.

Most people can sympathize with rising malpractice insurance rates for physicians, but this bill will do nothing to reduce people’s medical costs. It also allows big corporations to limit their liability for negligence. It transfers more wealth and political power to the richest people in our culture.

We have recently witnessed corporate corruption and greed that went unchecked and led to the largest financial crisis since the Great Depression. This bill removes more checks and balances and leaves us vulnerable to unscrupulous and negligent behavior from our culture’s richest and most powerful people.

Deregulating Standards

A state legislative committee has passed a dangerous, anti-education bill that would deregulate schools and lead to lower standards.

The House Common Education Committee approved Senate Bill 834, and it now goes to the House for a vote. The bill would allow an increasing percentage of Oklahoma schools to operate as charter schools, which are exempt from certain state mandates, such as lowered class sizes.

The Oklahoma Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers oppose the bill.

I wrote about this issue in this week’s Oklahoma Gazette. Be sure to read the counterpoint article as well.

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Coffee Controversy

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Should State Senate President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee resign his leadership position in the Oklahoma Legislature?

Coffee, a Republican, has been the subject of a media controversy ever since it was learned the Internal Revenue Service filed a $28,822 lien against him for taxes he owed. Coffee said he paid the taxes with a loan he received, but he refuses to divulge much information about it.

Who loaned him the money? What did he put up as collateral to get the loan? These are simple, basic questions. Why does Coffee refuse to share this basic information? His evasiveness creates speculation that he is hiding something, according to an editorial in the Tulsa World.

It also came to light recently that Coffee had failed to pay traffic tickets dating back to 2000.

The Coffee tax and ticket controversy is similar to the media swirl last year when it was learned former House Speaker Lance Cargill, another Republican, and some other legislators, including Democrats, were late in paying taxes. Cargill later resigned his leadership position.

Coffee’s position as a top leader in state government demands he exhibit integrity, especially when it comes to handling his own taxes. His refusal to be more open about the loan he received to pay off the taxes creates an unneeded aura of secrecy around the issue.

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Oklahoma College Students Benefit Under Obama Proposal

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President Barack Obama’s budget proposal would help Oklahoma college students cope with rising tuition costs and increase the number of state students who receive Pell Grants, according to a report issued by Institute for America’s Future.

The report shows how Oklahoma college tuition has risen by a staggering 39 percent from 2000 to 2008. Tuition rose in the state by an average of 7 percent last year, the report concludes.

Under the Obama budget proposal, Oklahoma college students would see increases in Pell Grants by an estimated $124, according to the report, which points out some 3,474 new students would take advantage of the grant program.

The report argues:

Over the past decade, states have cut their contributions to college budgets and grant aid has stagnated. Students have been forced to pay ever higher tuitions and costs. At the same time, wages are flat and savings have plummeted. Facing skyrocketing costs, students and families have increasingly turned to loans to pay for college. The number of college students graduating with over $25,000 in student loan debt has tripled in the last decade. The rising debt squeezes students and families out of higher education.

According to the report, Obama’s proposal “eliminates the Federal Family Education Loan Program that excessively subsidizes banks and moves to the US Department of Education’s Direct Loan program.” This is an important move, which will save the government money it can use to fund the Pell Grant increases. It will also give the loan program more government oversight and privilege students, not bankers.

There’s no doubt college students have received a bad deal in Oklahoma over the last few years as tuition has risen astronomically. When the government was flushed with cash a few years ago, the legislature decided to enact state tax cuts that primarily benefited wealthy people. Money from these cuts could have provided more funding to public higher education, which would have reduced tuition hikes.

This is a solid, first step that should help out Oklahoma college students, who surely face more tuition increases this coming fall given the state’s budget problems.

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