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All articles by Steve Lewis

The best vote a legislator can cast in special session (Capitol Update)

by | September 22nd, 2017 | Posted in Capitol Updates | Comments (1)

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.

I recently heard a well-regarded Republican legislator say that he was not sure he would vote to adjourn the special session if something is not done to raise revenue to deal with the state’s chronic budget deficit. Yes, you read that right. He may vote “no” on a motion to adjourn the special session sine die — in other words to just quit and go home — unless the Legislature has passed revenue measures to deal with the budget deficit.

This leads me to believe there has been thinking and some talk among Republican legislators of finding a way to deal with the gridlock between their leadership, the Democrats, and the governor on revenue. It leads me to believe that there may be the possibility afoot that most legislators, both Senators and Representatives, Republicans and Democrats, might choose to exercise the vote they were elected to make by refusing to accept more budget cuts, moving money around from one starving state agency to another, and robbing various funds as the way the legislature should do its business.

continue reading The best vote a legislator can cast in special session (Capitol Update)

Despite warnings, little has been done to ease prison and jail overcrowding (Capitol Update)

by | September 15th, 2017 | Posted in Capitol Updates, Criminal Justice | Comments (1)

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 has now become ritual, the Department of Corrections (DOC) is sounding the alarm about the overcrowding of Oklahoma’s Corrections system. It was announced last week that DOC reached another population record with 63,009 people in its system, marking the third significant population increase in less than a year. It was also announced that the Board of Corrections, when it meets this month, will likely be asked to consider what DOC Director Joe Allbaugh has described as a community release-based program. The yet undefined program is expected to release lower-risk prisoners to some sort of community supervision for part or all of the last 18 months of their sentences.

continue reading Despite warnings, little has been done to ease prison and jail overcrowding (Capitol Update)

Auto tax ruling has newly defined course of Oklahoma history (Capitol Update)

by | September 8th, 2017 | Posted in Capitol Updates, Taxes | Comments (0)

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.

The Supreme Court ruled last week on the constitutionality of HB 2433 that, last session, removed the sales tax exemption and added a 1.25 percent sales tax on the sale of motor vehicles. Boy, was I wrong!! I would have bet the farm that the court would hold HB 2433 in violation of SQ 640 and unconstitutional. The ruling was a 5-4 decision with the opinion being written by the newest member of the Court, Justice Patrick Wyrick. If Justice Wyrick, who was one-day short of 11 years old when SQ 640 was passed by a vote of the people, does nothing else remarkable in what will probably be a lengthy tenure on the Court, he along with the four justices who joined him have newly defined the course of Oklahoma history. In fact, this decision is no less sweeping than the original passage of SQ 640 in 1992.

I read both the majority opinion and the separate minority opinions, and I still think HB 2433 should have been held unconstitutional. But guess what? If the Court made a mistake, the right to make that mistake belongs to it. This is a good time for me and those who might feel the same way to remember that reasonable minds can differ. The members of the Court, all rational people of good will, have deliberated and ruled. Now it’s time for the people and the political branches of government to work with it.

continue reading Auto tax ruling has newly defined course of Oklahoma history (Capitol Update)

What it will take for Oklahoma to avoid becoming a third world state (Capitol Update)

by | September 1st, 2017 | Posted in Capitol Updates, Education | Comments (2)

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.

Twenty-eight years ago, amidst a crisis in the Oklahoma economy, parents, teachers, business leaders and others told Oklahoma legislators that to make Oklahoma’s future better they would need to make Oklahoma’s schools better. Education experts told legislators to make schools better it would take good teachers teaching children who are ready to learn in smaller classes with the latest textbooks and technology.

In response, to weed out weak teachers, legislators changed teacher tenure, giving school boards authority to terminate teacher contracts based on incompetency. Before that contracts could be terminated for some form of wrongdoing. Because teachers did not trust school boards to fairly evaluate teacher competency, teachers were allowed to fully appeal their cases in court. This is called “trial de novo.” Legislators also mandated a $9,000 increase in the minimum salary schedule over 5 years, the equivalent of $17,200 today.

continue reading What it will take for Oklahoma to avoid becoming a third world state (Capitol Update)

Multiple options for how special session might play out (Capitol Update)

by | August 25th, 2017 | Posted in Capitol Updates | Comments (2)

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.

It’s a reasonable and prudent thing for legislative leaders and the governor to be attempting to develop a plan for what they would do in a special session before actually going into special session. It’s also reasonable to wait until the Supreme Court rules on two more pending challenges to bills that provided significant funding for this year’s budget. But predicting the ultimate outcome of a legislative proposal before bills are even filed, if that’s what they expect to do, is a real challenge.

continue reading Multiple options for how special session might play out (Capitol Update)

Lawmakers get a Mulligan to fix the budget (Capitol Update)

by | August 18th, 2017 | Posted in Budget, Capitol Updates | Comments (0)

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.

Those who are golfers, which I’m not, are familiar with a Mulligan. But you don’t have to be a golfer to enjoy the benefits of a Mulligan. The term is now widely used to describe any “do-over,” or second chance after initial failure. The Supreme Court has given the Legislature a Mulligan to write an adequate and balanced state budget. The Court did so by assuming original jurisdiction of the measures that produced revenue for this year’s budget, and by ruling as quickly as a decent respect for giving all sides a chance to make their legal arguments would allow. The fiscal year has barely begun, so if the Legislature will act with the same dispatch as the Court, the damage will be limited.

I suspect the rulings on the other measures will come quite quickly, possibly this week, so legislators and the governor will know the size of the budget hole their initial failure has created. The deficit is at $215 million now, mostly affecting health care agencies, and could go higher depending on the Court’s rulings. Without the cigarette fee revenue, the Oklahoma Healthcare Authority will lose $70 million, 7 percent of its appropriation; the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services will lose $76 million, 23 percent of its budget; and the Department of Human Services will lose $69 million, a 10 percent cut.

continue reading Lawmakers get a Mulligan to fix the budget (Capitol Update)

Pros and cons of House GOP’s “policy working groups” replacing serious interim studies (Capitol Update)

by | August 11th, 2017 | Posted in Capitol Updates | Comments (0)

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.

On balance, it’s a good thing that House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols, with Speaker Charles McCall’s blessing, has appointed interim policy working group co-leaders to work on selected issues. Their purpose is to develop the Republican agenda for the 2018 legislative session. This seems designed to bring together the Republican caucus to try to reach consensus before the session on issues that have divided it since the Republicans took control in the last decade. The divisions have, to a degree, crippled efforts to solve serious state problems in health care, corrections, education, criminal justice policy, and fiscal policy.

Many citizens don’t realize membership in the Legislature is a year-around job. It may not be a “full-time” job, but members are “full-time legislators.” To be effective they must have regular contact with constituents about issues their constituents care about, attend informational meetings of all varieties to give them an understanding of state government deeper than “coffee-shop” talk, and forge relationships that can help them get things done. Those who don’t do these things simply show up in February and spout off their own uneducated personal opinions. That will get you by in the coffee shop, but it won’t accomplish anything in a legislative body.

continue reading Pros and cons of House GOP’s “policy working groups” replacing serious interim studies (Capitol Update)

The table is set to expand Medicaid in Oklahoma (Capitol Updates)

by | August 4th, 2017 | Posted in Capitol Updates, Healthcare | Comments (1)

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.

Years ago, when I was in the legislature, I was accused by an editor of one of my local newspapers of being a Pollyanna. Since then I’ve tried to curb the tendency to sometimes be overly optimistic. But, alas, I’m going to succumb to that tendency this week and suggest that last session’s budget, described as a lemon even by those who wrote it, provides the opportunity for lemonade.

Last session, as we all know by now, the Legislature and governor created a potential constitutional crisis by passing several bills by legally questionable methods. For the second straight year, Republicans found their caucus divided and unable to produce enough votes to safely pass needed revenue measures. In the waning days of the session they turned to Democrats for help. Democrats were anxious to bring both their votes and their ideas to the table, but the two parties could not get together. The result was the stop-gap, inadequate budget that even the most apathetic citizen can recognize as unworkable.

continue reading The table is set to expand Medicaid in Oklahoma (Capitol Updates)

Internal politics at work in ouster of Rep. Leslie Osborn (Capitol Update)

by | July 28th, 2017 | Posted in Budget, Capitol Updates | Comments (0)

Rep. Leslie Osborn and Speaker Charles McCall

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.

Internal legislative politics is one of the most fascinating but obscure phenomena in our representative government. It mostly occurs behind closed doors, only occasionally breaking into public view. And those involved — members of the legislative body — normally see no advantage in telling the whole story. Internal politics happens in private phone calls, private one-on-one or small group meetings, in casual social or political conversations that are intended to be kept quiet, and usually are, even by those who disagree with the final decision. Almost everything in life happens for more than one reason, so it’s not difficult to obscure the more important aspects of an internal political debate.

An example of internal House politics came into full public view last week when Speaker Charles McCall (R-Antlers) replaced Rep. Leslie Osborn (R-Mustang) as Chairwoman of the House Appropriations and Budget Committee. The Speaker’s spokesman said the replacement of Rep. Osborn had “nothing to do” with the fact that she directly and publicly disagreed with the Speaker and Majority Leader Mike Sanders (R-El Reno) about the way DHS director Ed Lake and his staff chose to deal with the shortage of DHS funding. On the other hand, Rep Osborn said, “It is a sad day when we cannot have an honest conversation about the major financial and budget issues we face as a state,” strongly suggesting that her public disagreement with the Speaker is the reason she was fired.

continue reading Internal politics at work in ouster of Rep. Leslie Osborn (Capitol Update)

Do lawmakers have a Plan B if the court throws out their budget? (Capitol Update)

by | July 21st, 2017 | Posted in Capitol Updates | Comments (1)

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.

I’m hoping — wondering without knowing — if anyone is doing some serious planning for what will happen if the Oklahoma Supreme Court holds a substantial portion of the funding for the current state budget unconstitutional. Most of the legislative leaders I’ve heard speak since the adjournment last May have acknowledged without admitting that an adverse ruling is a pretty good possibility.

The Supreme Court has scheduled oral arguments for the lawsuits challenging the revenue increases for August 8th. The Justices are likely researching and circulating opinions in advance of oral argument, and if nothing is said to significantly change their opinions, I think we can expect a ruling within a fairly short time after the oral arguments.

Since the fiscal year began July 1st, the state agencies are already depending on that money. If the court rules the funding unconstitutional, it will likely create an immediate revenue failure. Allocations of state funding go out to the various state agencies on a one-twelfth per month basis, so if there is a revenue failure, monthly allocations will be cut across the board in whatever percentage the court rules unconstitutional, plus whatever amount has already been spent that may have to be returned. The longer the court takes to rule, the more aggravated the problem could become.

If the legislature is required to go into special session to deal with the budget crisis, it would sure be a good thing if the governor and legislators have a plan. If they start from scratch and begin wrangling as they did during the regular session, throwing one potential tax increase after another against the wall to see if it sticks, the problem will simply get worse. It’s not only state agencies that will suffer, but schools and providers that contract with the state to provide state services — to say nothing of the Oklahomans who rely on the services. It’s a sobering prospect, and it will likely be happening about the time school starts.

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