Oklahoma’s 2006 legislative session will start off with a lot of proposals, but not necessarily much agreement.

That was the underlying message left after the state’s top three political leaders spoke with Associated Press members at a recent legislative workshop.

Writers and broadcasters from across the state heard from Gov. Brad Henry, Senate Pro-tem Mike Morgan and Speaker of the House Todd Hiett. Henry and Morgan are Democrats and Hiett is a Republican.

One area where agreement seemed possible, even likely, was improving roads and bridges.

Gov. Henry is proposing some $520 million over several years for road and bridge repairs, including an immediate $100 million with $50 million to counties and $50 to the state to repair some of the worst bridges.

He would also like to create a constitutional lockbox to keep future legislatures from moving the money to other areas of the budget.

A proposal from the GOP-controlled House of Representatives calls for approving $100 million to fix and rebuild the state’s 50 worst bridges, add an additional $15 million a year to the $35 million each year in new funds for the department of transportation that was a approved a year ago, and double the counties portion of the motor vehicle tax from 15 percent to 30 percent.

“We have very immediate needs in this area,” said Hiett, R-Kellyville.

Hiett said an immediate $100 million for bridge repairs “could be the first major agreement of this legislative session.”

Henry, in an upbeat discussion, said the state is on the right track.

“Wonderful things are happening all across this state and it is really important at the capitol that we get along . . . to tackle the most important issues of the day.”

Henry is also advocating a back-to-school sales tax holiday for the last weekend in August – an issue that comes up every year and generally falls by the wayside.

“It’s not that expensive and I believe it will be helpful to parents and families,” Henry said.

The governor is also looking at other targeted tax relief, but doesn’t want to damage future revenues for the state.

“We need to be careful,” he said. “It’s true we had growth revenue this year, but that will not always be the case. There will be a time when there is a downturn in the economy.”

The governor said his budget will call for record funding on all levels of education, including continuing to fund salary increases for teachers.

For one-time use in excess revenues, Henry is proposing the $100 million for roads and bridges, $100 million to start propping up the teacher retirement system, $100 million for the EDGE research endowment fund and $100 million to create an opportunity fund to help the state close deals on bringing in companies.

Hiett has very different ideas on taxes.

The speaker wants to eliminate the estate tax – or death tax as it is often called – and continue to cut the income tax rates. Last year the income tax rate was reduced by .4 percent and Hiett would like to do something similar this year.

The speaker also wants to focus on reducing the caseloads for DHS workers, strengthen sex offender legislation, corrections legislation and lawsuit reform.

On taxes, Hiett said, “The .4 percent reduction we’re advocating this year is just over $100 million in a year that we will have somewhere in the neighborhood of $600 million in surplus cash.”

Hiett said cutting the tax rate more would allow for a stronger economy in the future that is not dependent so much on just one sector such as oil and gas revenues.

Hiett said his task force has identified $110 million in savings in the state’s Medicaid system, and will also bring a proposal for a new Medicaid system that “will call for greater accountability, and also empower patients with greater choices in health care.”

The speaker said lawsuit reform will bring more jobs to the state and that abuse in the current system is making it harder to keep jobs in Oklahoma.

One of the big initiatives Morgan, D-Stillwater, plans to unveil in the Senate is a major expansion of the Oklahoma Higher Learning Access Program.

“It’s important to take OHLAP and really make something happen with it,” Morgan said. “Right now the program provides scholarships for students from families making $50,000 a year or less. We have proposed that be increased to $75,000 in household income.

“We’re very serious about this.”

Morgan said he would ask the chairman of the education subcommittee to take up the proposal on the first day of the session and he wants to fast track the legislation.

“We’re going to ask the minority to help push it through early in the session,” Morgan said.

Morgan said the legislature needs to “send the right signals to the people of Oklahoma that we are in fact going to invest record dollars available in programs that promote personal responsibility and OHLAP is the perfect example.”

The OHLAP program provides tuition to students who sign up, take a college preparatory curriculum, stay out of trouble and demonstrate good citizenship.

Morgan’s proposal will increase the cost of the OHLAP program to as much as $176 million a year by 2015, but he said it will pay off in more college graduates for Oklahoma’s future.

“We need to make this opportunity available to more Oklahomans, not less,” Morgan said. “There is no better investment we can make.”

Morgan said tax cuts were on the table, but he would take a cautious approach.

“All of us want to pay less in taxes, but we’ve got to keep our eyes on the next generation,” he said.

On lawsuit reform, Morgan said the Senate wants to focus on the front end of the problem and make it easier for judges to throw out lawsuits, make it easier to rule on summary judgment and require cases to get to trial within a specific period of time.

But, he said, “I will never be for closing the doors of the courthouse to the citizens of Oklahoma.”

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