Friction between elected officials rises to public view (Capitol Update)

It seems there’s a bit of early friction this year between the House, Senate, and the governor. Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat complained openly about House actions, apparently holding certain bills hostage for leverage in later negotiations. The House failed to hear a number of Treat’s bills before last Thursday’s committee deadline. This sort of thing happens, but it has to be worse than usual to break out into public. There are ways for leadership bills to get heard later, but the real issue is finding enough common ground to move forward.

In my view, the friction started with Medicaid managed care. Gov. Stitt directed the Oklahoma Health Care Authority to sign contracts with four private insurance companies to run Oklahoma’s $2 billion plus Medicaid program five days before the beginning of the legislative session. The governor essentially ignored medical care providers and what appear to be legislative majorities who oppose the move. To overcome the governor’s action, it will take a two-thirds majority in both chambers of the legislature. Marshalling super majorities while dealing with other contentious issues can fray the nerves for sure if the House and Senate are at odds over their own issues.

Last year, the House and Senate were able to work together to pass the entire state budget over the governor’s veto—a first in modern times. The actions they took then have put the state in a sound fiscal condition going into next year. Next year’s budget, ironically, may be more difficult to agree on. Without the COVID crisis, and with extra money to spend—some of it because of the approach the legislature took last session—it may be difficult to agree on how much of the extra money to spend. Everyone has priorities, including House Speaker Charles McCall who wants to spend part of the money on tax cuts.

An early victory for the governor on a divisive issue was passage of a change in the school funding formula that he touted as a major reform. When it passed, the governor took a victory lap, but it left a bad taste with some in the legislature and public education. 

Two years ago, legislators greatly increased the governor’s powers by allowing him to hire and fire at will agency directors and board members. They likely thought the power of the purse would be enough to adequately restrain gubernatorial overreach. But they didn’t anticipate a governor who would take preemptive actions on major policy issues thereby requiring super legislative majorities to reverse. This new system of governing will take some learning by everyone involved. It’s not just a matter of who gets to win or lose. It’s a matter of the best way to develop good public policy. It may take a while.


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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