Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1991. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.
With the appointment of House leadership by Speaker Charles McCall last week, the picture of legislative leadership for next session is coming into focus. The Senate had already announced its leadership appointments about a week ago. It came as no surprise that Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols (R-OKC) and Appropriations and Budget Chairman Kevin Wallace (R-Wellston) will remain in their current positions. Both are good at what they do and helped lead the House through the turbulent sessions of the past two years. They’ll work with newly appointed Senate Majority Leader Kim David and Senate Appropriations Chairman Roger Thompson next session.
Echols has a broad range of interests and the energy and intellect to move the needle forward on them. Wallace learned the ropes under fire, literally, when Speaker McCall removed former Appropriations Chair Leslie Osborn in 2017 over a dispute about revenue. Vice-Chairman Wallace took over and stabilized the situation. He then led the committee through the 2018 session. Undaunted, Osborn maintained a strong voice in the legislature and followed that with a successful underdog statewide campaign for Labor Commissioner.
Oklahoma state government has been described as a three-legged stool: The governor, speaker, and president pro tempore. This has certainly been true in the sense that, to accomplish something truly significant for the state and difficult, at least one of these three top leaders must take on the issue as his or her own cause. Hopefully all three will see value in the proposal. Working together they can accomplish most anything that is truly important to them and that needs to get done. But if they don’t agree in the beginning, one of the three must see the issue as something important enough to use the leverage they have with the other two. This is often perceived by the public as “squabbling” between the House and Senate or the Senate and governor, etc., but it may just be one of these three leaders trying to bring along the others on a difficult issue.
The three leaders do not work alone. Each has a team that will be important in helping determine “which hill to die on,” as the legislative saying goes. That’s where the leadership announcements by the House and Senate of the past couple weeks comes into play. With so many new legislators feeling their way at the Capitol, the leadership teams are going to be more important than usual next session. Gov.-Elect Stitt, himself a newcomer to state government, is in the process of putting his team together. How successful each leader is will depend on the value of his ideas, the strength of his team, his ability to marshal the support of his members, and his effectiveness in persuading or negotiating with the other two legs of the three-legged stool.