Last-minute budget dispute offers insight into closed-door negotiations (Capitol Update)

A dispute that developed on the final day of session offers a window into the closed-door negotiations which occur each year to produce a budget and bring each legislative session to an end. 

Strange as it may seem, since both legislative chambers represent the same constituents, members of the leadership of each chamber—all members of the same party—independently develop their own set of priorities, mostly through discussions with their members. The priority can be a widely held conviction of most of the chamber, or sometimes it may be a strongly held conviction of one of the leaders who has a seat at the table. It’s important to have leaders at the table who are knowledgeable and principled, yet reasonable. 

During leadership negotiations, there’s give and take between the leaders of both bodies with some issues being easy to resolve because both sides support the proposal. Others may cause the negotiations to hang up because one side can’t swallow what the other side is dishing up. But in the end a deal is struck, and everything in the package becomes a “leadership deal,” meaning all the issues agreed upon will be backed by the leadership who will then be expected to deliver enough votes to pass them through their chamber. Rarely does a leadership deal fail.

But on the last day of session on Friday, two bills that were part of the agreed-upon package failed in the Senate. The bills, which were House priorities, were House Bill 1022 and HB 1026, both dealing with the judiciary. HB 1026 ties the salaries of state-wide elected officials to the various levels of the judiciary, with the governor’s salary, for example, being tied to that of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. 

HB 1022, a longstanding priority of House Appropriations and Budget Chairman Kevin Wallace, R-Wellston, creates an Office of Judicial Performance Evaluation with a nine-member board. The duties of the Office and Board will be to conduct performance evaluations of judges and justices based on statutory criteria that includes integrity, legal knowledge, communication skills, judicial temperament, administrative performance, and service to the legal profession. The evaluations are confidential and meant to assist the judges with feedback on their performance—which they otherwise rarely get for obvious reasons. Also, where appropriate, the evaluation can form the basis for a complaint to the Council on Judicial Complaints.

When House leaders learned the two House bills had failed in the Senate, they decided to hold up three Senate bills: Senate Bill 27X that earmarks $12.5 million to fund community mental health programs approved by voters in State Question 781 in 2016; Senate Bill 11X that restores governing authority over the Department of Tourism and Recreation to an oversight board and removes the governor’s authority to appoint the director; and Senate Bill 22X that creates the “Oklahoma Museum of Popular Culture Supplemental Revolving Fund” to receive moneys appropriated to the OKPOP Museum in Tulsa. SB 27X and SB 11X were proposals worked on by Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, for several years. 

The House leadership’s actions seem clearly meant as leverage to get what they felt they had bargained for. Likely in the last-day rush to end the session, Senate leadership was simply taken by surprise that the two House proposals failed. The House bills were held for reconsideration so the issues involving all the bills can and should be resolved on June 12 with legislators return to special session. 


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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