Speaker’s bill a reform of unemployment comp system – or ‘Kabuki-theatre set-up?”
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Published: 14-Feb-2013

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Depending on whose analysis you most trust, House Bill 1911, sponsored by Speaker of the House T.W. Shannon, is either “aimed at preventing frivolous unemployment benefit claims” or a “Kabuki-theatre set-up.”
 
The bill advanced from the state House Economic Development and Financial Services Committee on Feb. 13. It would revise the Employment Security Act of 1980, requiring unemployment benefit applicants to affirm, in an affidavit, that they do not meet criteria that would disqualify them from receiving the benefit.
 
State Rep. Jon Echols presented the legislation on behalf of Shannon, a Lawton Republican, at this week’s hearing.
 
Echols’ presentation on the bill provoked a negative response from Democrats on the panel. State Rep. Richard Morrissette, a south Oklahoma City Democrat, asked Echols, “Would you agree with me that this bill is a Kabuki-theatre set-up to benefit employers?” (Kabuki theatre originated in Japan, and is often -- but not always -- characterized by elaborate costumes, exaggerated performance and thin story lines.
 
In an exchange during the question period, and later during debate, Morrissette slammed the legislation. He said, “Just because the speaker of the House has his name on this bill doesn’t mean it’s going to pass. What are unemployment benefits? You have to understand that people live on these benefits. This bill needs to die and it needs to die today.”
 
Morrissette also said, “This bill was written by special interests to benefit employers. If it passes it will be challenged and will be found unconstitutional.”
 
In defense of the legislation, Rep. Echols maintained Morrissette’s contentions were “patently absurd. “  He said it was “not an imposition to require an affidavit that a dismissed employee had not violated any laws or done anything wrong. The idea -- that filing an affidavit is unfair -- is absurd. The idea it is somehow unfair to say that you have to verify you’re entitled to benefits – that idea is absurd.”
 
Echols, an Oklahoma City Republican, professed respect for Morrissette, but shot back at his criticisms, saying, “I’m not running this for me, I’m running this bill for workers who should be getting the benefits and have committed no fraud.”
 
In a follow-up interview with CapitolBeatOK, Rep. Morrissette added, “I don’t believe the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission in any way supports this bill, or had anything to do with the drafting of this bill. I will do everything in my power to assure it dies a slow and unpleasant death.”
 
In a press statement after Thursday’s hearing, Shannon made his case for the bill, saying, “This measure is intended to make it more difficult for fired employees to file frivolous unemployment claims against business owners. These claims drive up costs on employers and make it more difficult for them to replace the terminated employee and put money back into their businesses.”
 
According to the release from Shannon’s office, the measure “also lays out a list of actions that would be ‘misconduct’ on the part of an employee if done during the course of employment and that would disqualify a person terminated for any of those actions from receiving unemployment benefits.
 
“Finally, the bill shifts the burden of proof from the employer to the terminated employee to show that the action that led to his or her termination was not misconduct that would disqualify him or her from receiving benefits.”
 
A tabling motion on the measure failed 9-4, in a vote along party lines. In the end, the H.B. 1911 cleared committee 8-4, and advances to the newly-formed House Calendar Committee, to decide on the timing of floor action.

You may contact Patrick B. McGuigan at Patrick@capitolbeatok.com and follow us on Twitter: @capitolbeatok.

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