By Alex Cameron, NEWS 9
OKLAHOMA CITY -- The 2009 legislative session gets underway next week, with Republicans in control of both chambers for the first time ever, but with a sizeable revenue shortfall looming.
The session will begin Monday, as it does every year, with the Governor's state of the state address. He'll outline his priorities for the session, and then lawmakers will get to work on those, and on their own priorities.
"I think what you will see is that the Senate Democrats will stand up for the common man..." Senator Charlie Laster (D) Senate Democratic Leader said.
The now-minority Senate Democrats said much of their agenda this session is aimed at helping middle-income Oklahomans, an assertion the now-majority Republicans said rings hollow.
"They haven't done a good job of defending the working Oklahomans, and to say that they did when they were minding the store is disingenuous," Senator Glenn Coffee (R) Senate President Pro Tem said.
Republicans said the legislation they'll push, such as tort reform, will benefit, not just one group, but all Oklahomans.
"All of our health care costs are rising, and it's not just insurance companies that are at issue, it's all these mandates, it's the frivolous lawsuits that are being filed," Coffee said.
Democrats said they'll support lawsuit reform, if it helps minimize the length and cost of litigation.
"What we will not be supportive of are lawsuit reform issues, ideas that do nothing but tip the scales of justice in favor of insurance companies," Laster said.
While tort reform legislation may prove divisive, other issues, like protecting the state's water resources, continuing to fund road and bridge repairs, and working on a wide range of health care reforms, should allow the two sides to find common ground, if the very tight budget allows for any.
"The number one priority is to balance the budget without raiding the rainy day fund," Governor's Spokesman Paul Sund said.
Governor Henry's staff said, with about $600 million less to work with this year, that will mean making cuts and finding efficiencies.
"But at the same time, as we're making those cuts, we don't want to make across the board cuts," Sund said. "We want to be surgical about it and protect things like education, health care, transportation and public safety."
That budget process really will be the thing to watch whether the belt-tightening exacerbates the rift between lawmakers or brings them together. The last time they faced a shortfall like this was Governor Henry's first year in office and things went pretty smoothly.
News9.com will live stream the Governor's state of the state address at about noon Monday.