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.
The legislative session started Monday, and it may be one of the most difficult ever. Legislators must clean up the budget mess left last year – which means supplemental appropriations for the health and human services agencies – before beginning this year’s budget. There should be some help there from the strong revenue finish the last few months of last fiscal year, but there is still a substantial shortfall to deal with.
The big item will be next year’s budget which will require, if it’s done right, tax increases. The good news is all except the most ardent anti-taxers recognize the problem. The bad news is there are quite a few ardent anti-taxers in the House where a tax bill must begin. Further difficulty will come from trying to agree on how much and which taxes to raise. The business community’s Step Up plan has given legislators, at least the Republicans, cover to raise taxes so long as legislators do not stray too far from their recommendations.
No group – including even the legislative leadership! – can expect to lay out a proposal and have it accepted in full. Members have their own point of view and they are entitled to be heard, to say nothing of representing their own districts. It will take some willingness to work through various proposals to get enough votes to do what needs to be done. The “take it or leave it” approach usually doesn’t work.
Apart from the budget, there are literally hundreds of issues in our state that genuinely need thoughtful attention. Some are controversial. Some are impossible to resolve without adequate funding beyond just making up for budget cuts over the past decade. A lot of these issues require change, which is not easy.
Serving in the legislature is a difficult form of public service. But in times like these, it’s even tougher. Two House members eligible under term limits to run for re-election have already opted to announce their retirement. One, Rep. Dale Derby (R-Owasso) served only one term. Undoubtedly there will be more. No matter what legislators do, they’ll likely face some hostility at home. Most can survive it politically, but some may decide it’s just not worth it. Life is short!