Lawmakers play ball while budget crisis looms (Fox 25)

By Phil Cross

With a $1.3 billion budget hole and a deadline looming what would you expect your elected leaders would be doing? Fox 25 found several state representatives playing ball during a time many people would consider business hours.

It is the one time of year you’ll see Democrats and Republicans playing ball with each other. The annual softball game used to pit the Senate versus the House. It is just the House that plays now. No one really knows why, except a few years ago the Senate added a former professional baseball player to its ranks.

But is the entire ballgame out of line given the grave situation the state is facing?

This is done in a bi-partisan fashion and we do this every year to get to know each other on a bipartisan basis,” said Representative Dan Kirby, R-Tulsa, “This is fun, it didn’t cost us any money.”

The field time was donated according to Kirby and fellow game organizer Representative Eric Proctor, D-Tulsa. However, the house did use a state-owned bus which is normally just used to transport pages to and from hotels. Fox 25 watched the bus pick up pages at the game.

The first pitch was slated for three o’clock, coincidentally the same time Oklahoma City Public Schools was announcing $10 million in additional cuts to education due to state budget cuts.

Fox 25 cameras caught the action around 4:00 in the afternoon when the game in full swing.

“One thing we can agree on is it is important for Republicans and Democrats to get along,” Proctor said, “It is important for Republicans and Democrats to build friendships.”

But why did lawmakers, who have the job of crafting and passing a state budget, have all this free time?

“We know that over the last couple of weeks they’ve had very short legislative sessions,” said David Blatt of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, “Some committees have met, others haven’t some days by midafternoon it is almost deserted here.”

Blatt spends a lot of time at the capitol during the session. Other lobbyists and lawmakers have told Fox 25 this week has seen very short sessions with little work being done in public. Blatt says the given the situation the state is facing it is not reassuring to see the capitol empty.

“I think for a lot of people as we look at the magnitude of the problem we are facing and how close we are to the end of the legislative session I think they would expect that the legislators would be here.”

“Most of the members that were playing are your everyday members,” Proctor explained, “They aren’t members of the majority membership and the folks in the speaker’s office they set the times for the day.”

Proctor did not say if the members at the game were not needed at other times in the legislative session.

After questioning by Fox 25 about how ‘after hours’ the game really was, Representative Kirby said work was still going on at the capitol during the game.

“I know we have important issues, but there were people still at the capitol working on those important issues,” Kirby said, “There were still people at the capitol, if we needed to, there was still a quorum available at the capitol; people were still doing committee meetings.”

So there was still work happening at the capitol, but it was not being done by the elected representatives at the softball game.

However, Kirby and Proctor say building friendships is important in the legislative process and aids in helping pass legislation.

“The vast majority of bills that are contentious, that move the state forward, that make serious changes,” Proctor said, “Very few of those pass on 100% partisan votes.”

That may be true, except for the legislature’s primary responsibility, passing a budget, which in recent years has passed on a 100% partisan vote.

Those recent budgets included zero cuts to the legislature’s budget.

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