The Associated Press
OKLAHOMA CITY — Energy independence, improving health care and preparing Oklahoma students to compete in the global economy are among the issues that state House Republicans hope to tackle during the 2009 Legislature, according to a six-point legislative agenda adopted by the House’s majority party on Monday.
GOP House members met privately for almost four hours to hammer out their agenda for the upcoming legislative session, which kicks off on Feb. 2. Afterward, GOP House Speaker Chris Benge of Tulsa declined to discuss details but said the agenda reflects his party’s emphasis on conservative principles.
“I think it’s a very good example of continued pro-growth, conservative policies,” Benge said. The House speaker credited those policies with helping the state’s economy remain relatively strong in spite of the national economic downturn.
State finance officials have said lawmakers will have about $310 million less to spend next year largely due to declining energy prices and the nation’s slowing economy. But the state’s finances are in better shape than many other states, including some that are experiencing budget shortfalls of $1 billion or more.
Benge said specifics about the agenda will be outlined at a news conference later this week.
Republicans took control of the 101-member Oklahoma House in 2004 for the first time in 80 years and strengthened their political control of the House in last fall’s elections.
There are now 61 Republicans in the House, up from 57 prior to the elections, and 40 Democrats, down from 44.
The GOP took control of the Senate for the first time in state history in the November general election, and House and Senate leaders have said they plan to develop a joint agenda to promote their shared goals.
“I think you’ll see more cooperation between the two sides,” Benge said.
Benge, serving his second year as speaker, has provided clues to his political and legislative goals during speeches prior to Monday’s GOP caucus.
Benge has said he wants lawmakers to work on legislation that will help achieve energy independence for the nation and create a pro-growth business climate.
Benge said demand for power will continually increase over the next 20 years and that lawmakers should work with other state agencies and utilities to develop alternative sources of energy, including nuclear power.
The House speaker has also said he supports programs to improve the state’s health care system as well as advances in education that will help Oklahoma students compete in a global economy.
Efforts to modernize state government and protect Oklahoma families and values round out the House Republican agenda, according to lawmakers who attended the caucus.
Last year, the House Health Care Reform Task Force convened a series of meetings on improving health care in the state and ways to reduce the number of uninsured Oklahomans. An estimated 650,000 state residents do not have health insurance.
Suggestions aired by lawmakers included improving access to health care and increasing the number of doctors and nurses, expanding a public-private partnership that helps small businesses provide health care coverage to their employees and urging Oklahomans to take personal responsibility for their health.
Benge has called the health care issue a priority.
The Associated Press