Expectations running high for new legislative session (Capitol Update)

Like most others, I’m feeling positive about the new legislative session. It’s sort of like just before the first game of the season every year. No wins, no losses, but lots of possibilities with expectations running high. We are fielding a team with lots of freshmen, even the governor. A new way of doing things is the order of the day. If you want to do something you need a better story than “this is the way we’ve always done it.” The session presents both dangers and opportunities. Some “new” ideas are not new at all: They’re just recycled bad ideas that didn’t work before. But given the “near the bottom” place we perennially find ourselves, most Oklahomans seem ready to put their faith in the new crowd at the Capitol.

Education, as it should be, will be the number one issue for the new governor and legislature to deal with. Their success might hinge on how much money the equalization board certifies as available to appropriate when it meets in February. The thinking now is it will be somewhat less than the December certification, but a healthy increase from last year. From my observations, legislators will need all they can get. Educators don’t seem much happier than they were before last session. If class size, textbooks and other educational issues don’t receive a pretty substantial increase the bloom could be quickly off the rose. And there are other needs in state government. For example, the governor says he found his office funded at 1980s levels. The proof in the pudding for education support may again be whether you are willing to support more revenue (tax) increases.

Reading the tea leaves and news reports, it looks like the legislature and governor are going to lead with reorganizing state government. Legislators are ready to give the governor the appointing power – and thus the management responsibility – he says he wants. While they are doing this, it might be wise to keep an eye over their shoulder on what Gov. Sam Brownback did to Kansas. Kansas has one of the most powerful governorships in the country. One thing’s for sure: We’ll need to pay a lot of attention to whom we elect as governor in the future.

The governor seems ready to make criminal justice reform an early accomplishment of his administration. I hope he’s successful. He was right to thank Governor Fallin for starting the conversation, and he’s also right that there is a lot more to be done. This is a place where ideas that are new in Oklahoma have been working elsewhere for a long while. More power to the governor and legislators who want to save lives, families and tax dollars with smarter criminal justice.

Listening closely to what the governor is saying, it looks like legislators and the governor may also want to find a way to move toward expanding Medicaid coverage for Oklahomans. If he’s serious about making Oklahoma a top ten state in health care, this will have to happen. No matter how smart we think we are in Oklahoma, we cannot forfeit ninety cents on the dollar of additional healthcare funding and be among the better states in providing healthcare. Frankly, I don’t think it will take the governor very long to understand that. And for guy who went from zero name recognition to governor in less than two years, against top notch opposition, I think he’s smart enough to figure out the politics of getting it done if he wants to.


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.

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