As Legislature gathers, Oklahomans await results (News OK)

By Ben Felder

When the compressor broke on the industrial refrigerator at the Cocina De Mino Mexican restaurant in south Oklahoma City, co-owner Tim Wagner faced a $5,000 replacement or a quick fix for around $1,500.

“I just went ahead and paid for a new one because you can’t always put a Band-Aid on problems,” said Wagner, sitting in his windowless office behind the kitchen, between stacks of purchase orders and food inventory lists.

“You have to invest in your business. You also have to invest in the state, and the Legislature isn’t doing that, they are just making temporary and quick fixes.”

Oklahoma’s Legislature gathers Monday for a special session, tasked by the governor to address an immediate budget shortfall and to find a fix for problems that have plagued the state for many years, including low teacher pay.

While lobbyists, politicos and corporate bill trackers turn their attention to the state Capitol for the rare late-summer gathering, Oklahoma’s business owners, soccer moms and classroom teachers remain focused on their jobs, even though they will bear the brunt of the decisions — or lack thereof — that come out of the state House and Senate in the coming days.

“I heard something about the special session,” said Robby Meeks, an in-town delivery driver who was dropping off a package at the Family Dollar store next to Cocina De Mino.

His truck radio was dialed to a sports talk radio show and he admitted to paying more attention to the Oklahoma Sooners than the Oklahoma Legislature. But from what he’s heard, the state is facing challenges he isn’t sure elected leaders are up to fixing.

“We are broke, right?” Meeks said. “But aren’t the people who caused the problem the ones … now expected to (fix it)?”

Back in the restaurant, Wagner said he has seen the impact of state budget cuts on the students of a high school football team he donates pregame meals to, many of which attend schools with crumbling textbooks and deal with food insecurity at home.

He also hears about the impact when customers discuss rising health care costs or overcrowded prisons.

“They are just passing it on, plugging the hole and hoping that it lasts until they’re out of office,” Wagner said. “And that’s a crappy way of doing business.”

‘That was punted’

Wagner exemplifies a level of voter frustration that may be most clearly viewed in a recent slate of special elections that saw Democrats steal three seats from Republicans, who hold a large majority at the state Capitol and added to their numbers in the 2016 general election.

Wagner’s restaurant sits in Senate District 44, where Democratic Sen. Michael Brooks-Jimenez won election in July in an open seat formerly held by Republican Ralph Shortey, the former state senator who resigned amid charges of possessing child pornography and attempting to have sex with a minor.

About 12 miles down Interstate 35, a Cleveland County House seat, which includes parts of Norman, was flipped this month when Democrat Rep. Jacob Rosecrants won a special election that even Republicans said was a sign of frustration toward their party.

“We knocked close to 10,000 doors (during the campaign) and a lot of the feedback we were getting from the voters was they were not happy with the way things ended this year during the regular session,” said Mike Edwards, chairman of the Cleveland County Republican Party. “They were not happy that the education funding issue didn’t get solved or even really attempted. That was punted.”

Edwards doesn’t believe a wave of Republicans voted for Rosecrants, but rather a lack of enthusiasm for the party kept many home on Election Day.

“I don’t want new taxes,” said Rachel Smith, a mother of two who was rushing through a Norman coffee shop. “But that’s different from needing new taxes.”

This week’s special session is likely to drum up the arguments of just a few months ago over tax hikes on cigarettes, services and oil and gas production.

House Democrats have vowed to push for an increase in oil and gas taxes, which they say has voter support — 67 percent of Oklahomans support an increase in the gross production tax, according to a survey by WPA Intelligence.

“They say (an increase) would hurt jobs,” Smith said. “I don’t think it would hurt teacher jobs; they need the money.”

‘You need to listen’

Some Oklahomans plan to join lawmakers at the Capitol this week, urging solutions to budget woes.

“What we have seen is our legislators still have this disconnect of what is actually of concern for their constituents,” said Kara Joy McKee, an outreach and advocacy coordinator with the Oklahoma Policy Institute, along with serving as a coordinator with the Together Oklahoma coalition, a nonpartisan state government advocacy group.

McKee said her group has hosted several training sessions to teach citizens how to advocate at the Capitol and she expects a large crowd on Monday.

She hopes a narrowly defined special session will spur lawmakers to address some of the state’s biggest funding needs.

“Lawmakers, who can sometimes dodge these fiscal issues during the regular session, will have to focus on the budget during this special session,” McKee said. “They have to focus on the budget, they have to learn how this works.”

While Republicans have lost a few races this summer with some of the blame placed on a lack of action on funding issues, party leaders say that doesn’t necessarily mean a shift in fiscal thinking, especially as Republicans consider next year’s primary races that could force a double-downed commitment to lower taxes and cutting back government spending.

“You need to listen to what the voters told you … and the broad consensus was an overall sense of disappointment in the way things have gone since Republicans took control of the Legislature, especially last year,” said Edwards, referring to the Norman special election. “But that doesn’t mean voters aren’t still bothered by what they see as wasteful spending and don’t believe we can do better.”

In northeast Oklahoma City, on the day of a municipal election earlier this month, James Murrell, 80, shook his head as he talked about the challenge he had in voting for several municipal ballot questions, mostly to go toward road improvement and public safety.

Even though the proposed tax increase would fund city services, he could not detach that from his frustration with state leaders.

“I look at how this current administration has gotten us in this hole,” Murrell said about Gov. Mary Fallin and the Legislature. “Maybe this (tax increase) is partly to bring them back from the mess they created.

“Where there’s money to take, city or state, they get to it.”


Margaret (Maggie) den Harder obtained a Bachelor of Arts in Christian Theology from Seattle Pacific University and a Master of Public Administration from the University of Oklahoma. Originally from the Pacific Northwest area of Washington state, Maggie has called Tulsa home for the past 8 years. Since living in Tulsa, Maggie has worked in the legal field, higher education administration, and the nonprofit sector as well as actively volunteering in the community. Maggie also recently spent time at the City of Tulsa as a consultant and wrote the content for Resilient Tulsa, an action-oriented strategy designed to better equity in Tulsa. Through her work, community involvement, and personal experiences, Maggie is interested in the intersection of the law and mental health and addiction treatment issues, preventative and diversion programs, and maternal mental health, particularly post-partum depression and post-partum psychosis. While working at Oklahoma Policy Institute as a research intern, Maggie further developed an interest in family dynamics and stability, economic security-related stress, and intergenerational trauma.

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