Examining the rift between legislators, Governor (Capitol Update)

It looks like a lot of work will need to be done if the relationship between the Legislature and Gov. Stitt is to be repaired. What began as a lovefest in 2019 deteriorated to a slugfest by the closing days of the 2020 Legislative session. The Governor, a political unknown at the beginning of the 2018 campaign, defeated two popular Republican primary opponents and crushed the Democratic nominee in the general election. He arrived in Oklahoma City as a political rock star in 2019. Along with him came a Legislature made up of 53 new members and Republican supermajorities in both houses.

During the 2019 session, the Governor scored two major victories, both of which may have helped bring on the suspicion, distrust, and discontent seen now. The first was gubernatorial appointment of state agency directors, which the governor made his top priority. This is not the problem itself, but it has led to accusations of failure by agencies to communicate with legislators and failure to provide accurate and timely information when requested, presumably at the direction of the governor or his staff. As a result, the Legislature has established means of its own to gather data. You do not have to be a genius to know that knowledge is power and withheld knowledge is leverage.

The other victory was causing $200 million to be deposited into the Revenue Stabilization Fund over and above a $354.6 million deposit into the Rainy Day Fund. The Governor was insisting he wanted $2 billion in savings before some of the state’s pent-up needs were addressed. There was never any indication this was something legislators wanted or intended to do until late in the 2019 session. There is no way to know what was said by whom behind closed doors, but in the end the Legislature gave the new Governor his way. Many of the legislators who had labored in the vineyards through the great recession and voted for the taxes to support state services didn’t feel they did so to put the money in a savings account before the state’s needs were met.

It’s just a guess, but I’d say the seeds of the 2020 session impasse that resulted in a total breakdown of budget discussions between the Governor and the Legislature, the veto of the budget, and the override were sown at the end of the 2019 session during final budget negotiations. Afterwards, legislators began working through the interim to develop a budget for the 2020 session. When they began to get agency budget requests with standstill or percentage cuts at what they suspected were directions from the Governor, even with a predicted increase in revenue at the time, the relationship began to deteriorate.

To add insult to injury, the Governor vetoed several of the few policy bills that made it through the session abbreviated due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The vetoes were apparently without consultation with or explanation to bill authors or supporters and with what legislators felt was inadequate or erroneous information. Some bills are harder than others, but any bill takes work by the authors to bring various points of view together and shepherd it through the legislative process. It is disappointing when the bill is vetoed. Consultation and explanation help. 

Probably none of this is beyond repair, but it is not too soon to start. 


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.