A wild ride for first-term legislators (Capitol Update)

Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1991. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

As a postscript to this year’s legislative session, I’ve been thinking about what it would be like to have been serving your first term in the Legislature this past two years. If my count is correct, 54 of the 148 members of the Legislature are serving in their first two years, having been elected at the general election in 2016 or at a special election to fill one of the several vacancies that have occurred. For most of them with little direct involvement in state government, it’s hard to imagine they had even a clue as to what they were letting themselves in for.

For starters, they inherited a huge budget hole that was created by the combined actions of the economy and the fiscal decisions of the past decade that were made by their predecessors. In addition to the several “hot button” issues they could have anticipated, they were called on to try to raise taxes to help fill a years-long series of revenue failures and budget deficits. Think about it. The working assumption for most of the previous 28 years was that “the Legislature cannot raise taxes” because of the 75 percent supermajority required in our constitution since passage of SQ 640. Through the years, large numbers of legislators blissfully came and went without facing what these new members have faced.

To be honest, many of the new members were elected on the promise to come to the Capitol and “fix the problem.” But what did that mean? Some probably thought they could be the ones to find all the waste and corruption, never intending to vote for more taxes. But, soon recognizing that new revenue was needed, the newbies found themselves locked in combat between mostly senior members of the two parties on what kind of taxes should be raised, another first-in-a generation battle. Unable or unwilling to find a compromise, legislators stumbled on the cigarette “fee” later held unconstitutional and endured two lengthy and exhausting special sessions, in addition to the two regular sessions.

After two years of near constant legislative session and the immediate threat of going into session with pressure from all sides on revenue and spending (plus a myriad of other issues), these folks finally finished their second year with a teacher walkout and crowded galleries of very unhappy citizens. In addition to the exhaustion that all the members must feel, these new members must wonder if this is just the way it is to serve in the Legislature. My guess is that it probably will be for at least a couple more years, maybe more.

Pushed to the limit of despair over the condition of their state government, the citizenry, at least for now, is aroused. They have announced loudly that they have expectations. It’s up to those wanting to serve to figure out what those expectations are. It must seem daunting. And now these combat-weary first termers who get re-elected — veterans beyond their years — will greet in November a new class of forty or fifty members eager to assume the reins of policymaking.


Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.