11 Bills in 11 Days – Episode 1

This year, Governor Fallin signed 394 pieces of legislation. I was the primary Senate author of 11 of those bills. Over the next 11 days, I will tell the story of each bill – where it came from, how it progressed through the Legislature, and what it means to the people of Oklahoma. This is in keeping with my longstanding support of transparency, and hopefully you’ll find this exercise insightful. #11BillsIn11Days
 
Today, we begin with Senate Bill 1113, which allows courts to award attorney fees to people who successfully regain property that had been taken from them in the civil asset forfeiture process.
 
The first page of Senate Bill 1113.

The first page of Senate Bill 1113.

In the spring of 2015, Senator Kyle D. Loveless introduced legislation to reform the civil asset forfeiture process. This is the process by which law enforcement seizes property it alleges has been involved in criminal activity. Senator Loveless’s efforts to get a hearing for that legislation captured headlines when the chairman of the committee it was assigned to made it clear he was not likely to give it a hearing. In the Legislature, bills are assigned to committees organized around subject areas, and the chairmen of those committees have absolute authority over whether a bill receives a hearing or not. Most bills die this way.

 
Paid lobbyists supporting reform of civil asset forfeiture reform approached me about authoring this bill, which represented a small reform in this area, but nevertheless a positive one. Ideas come from lots of places, but it is not uncommon for lobbyists to approach legislators with ideas for legislation. I don’t have a problem with this, because sometimes they have good ideas, and I know it’s useful to have their help in getting a bill through the legislative process. When they have bad ideas, I say no. I also pride myself on introducing a lot of bills that have no lobbying support at all. Believe it or not (and you probably do) there are not a lot of bills introduced at the Oklahoma Legislature that were not suggested by a lobbyist. This disappoints me, but I digress…
 
In December and January, I worked with Senate staff to get the language just right for SB 1113. When a bill is especially important to me, or particularly complex, I have been known to draft it myself. But even when I let staff take the first crack at it, I generally tinker with it significantly, and sometimes I’ll rewrite it at each step of the process. In this case, the bill was pretty simple and short.
 
Once it was filed and session began in February, it was assigned to the Judiciary Committee. I began making the pitch to the chairman that this bill made sense. He was simultaneously denying a hearing to Senator Loveless’s more comprehensive reforms, and so I knew there was a strong possibility he would not hear my bill either. But, he eventually relented and gave it a hearing in the last committee hearing before the deadline that would have killed it. It passed Judiciary Committee unanimously on February 23rd.
 
Meanwhile, I was negotiating with Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater over some of the language to ensure that law enforcement did not fight the bill. We struck the title in committee to continue working on those changes. Striking title means that you render the bill incapable of becoming law. You literally take the title off, just as you might remove the title of a book (and a book needs a title). Striking title is generally a gesture to show that the bill is a work in progress. Other legislators and outside interests might not fight a bill they otherwise oppose if you show good faith by striking the title.
 
A week later, Senator Loveless co-authored the bill (a gesture in the Legislature that doesn’t give the co-author any authority, but simply indicates that they really like your bill). Meanwhile, I worked on a floor substitute (a new version of the bill for consideration on the Senate floor). This floor sub represented my negotiations with law enforcement. I also separately had to file an amendment to restore the title. It was my objective to pass a bill out of the Senate that would not need to return. Generally, this is always my objective, but sometimes I have to keep title off. But when I do that, it means the bill will have to return to the Senate for another vote if it passes the House.
 
By March 7th, I secured Rep. Randy Grau as the House author. One has to have a House author because that is the person who will play the role for the bill that I did in the Senate. It is important to choose your author carefully. They need to like your bill almost as much as you do, or you’ll only get halfway to the finish line. On March 9th, the day before the last deadline for floor action, I presented the bill on the Senate floor, adopted the floor sub, restored title, and passed it 45-0. A surprisingly high number of votes in the Senate are unanimous. And in the Senate, securing a floor hearing is generally not that difficult. The Senate culture is to weed things out at the committee level. Once you get past committee, it’s generally up to you as the author whether your bill is heard on the Senate floor.
 
And so, SB 1113 now made the journey to the House. On March 22nd, Rep. Grau passed it through Judiciary Committee in the House. Simultaneous to this progress, I had signed up as the Senate author of a House version of the same concept. That version had passed the House and came over to the Senate. But considering the committee chairman’s concerns about civil asset forfeiture reform, it seemed to make the most sense to drop pursuit of the House bill and proceed with the Senate version, and so we did. After securing a floor hearing (which, in contrast to the Senate, can be difficult in the House) Rep. Grau passed the measure through the House on April 21st, the day of the deadline. I note the deadlines, because this bill pushed all them. There was no particular reason that occurred, but it’s worth noting because when you do that, you always run the risk that something crazy happens and your bill dies just because somebody ran out of time. It is worth recalling that many bills die at the Legislature for reasons that have little to do with their merits. This is not necessarily what they teach in high school civics, but it is true nonetheless.
 
The bill passed the House 78-6. There are 101 House members, but for reasons unknown to me, there are often a lot of non-votes in the House. It is also very rare for anything to pass unanimously (in contrast to the Senate).
 
Our bill then went to the Governor’s desk. I sent her a letter about it, and responded to standard inquiries from her staff. She signed it April 28th. The way it was drafted, it doesn’t become law until November 1st of this year, which is pretty common.
 
Hopefully, SB 1113 will encourage attorneys to take up the causes of those who have had their assets unjustly seized, and hopefully it will do some good. It certainly improves the situation. I recognize that more reform is needed in the area of civil asset forfeiture, but I was glad to have contributed to some positive action this session.
 
 
Tomorrow, we’ll continue with another episode of #11BillsIn11Days.
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