What the Legislature really needs (The Journal Record)

By Arnold Hamilton 

It’s not unusual for legislative-exes to extend their taxpayer-financed careers once leaving office. Consider: ex-Rep. Dan Sullivan is Grand River Dam Authority CEO, ex-Rep. Tad Jones is Will Rogers Memorial Museum director, and ex-Sen. Sean Burrage is Southeastern Oklahoma State University president.

It’s also not uncommon for former lawmakers to remain prominent figures at the Capitol, serving as lobbyists – think ex-Rep. Terry Ingmire, ex-Sen. Jim Dunlap, and one-time House Speaker Steve Lewis.

This week, though, came news that at least three outgoing state senators are taking a different route in their post-legislative careers: They’re setting up a think tank.

Term-limited Senate Finance Committee Chairman Mike Mazzei, R-Tulsa, is the driving force behind the Oklahoma Opportunity Project, which will seek to promote conservative fiscal policies. He is joined on the fledgling board by another term-limited senator, Bartlesville Republican John Ford, and retiring Stillwater Republican Jim Halligan.

With the state grappling with a $1.3 billion budget hole in the most recent session, Mazzei was one of the few sane voices crying in the GOP legislative wilderness. He urged his colleagues to reconsider a quarter-percentage-point income tax cut, triggered late last year before the state revenue picture plunged into total darkness.

Alas, Mazzei could not persuade enough of his Republican brethren to even entertain a delay in the tax cut that wiped out another $147 million in revenue at a time when schoolteachers flee to other states for better-paying jobs, mental health services are being cut and dilapidated roads and bridges cry out for investment.

It’s hard to imagine Mazzei’s group could accomplish as outsiders what he, Ford and Halligan were unable to do as legislators and members of the GOP Senate leadership: persuade the Legislature to embrace more common-sense fiscal policies.

“Our goal, in the era of term limits, is to offer policy ideas and institutional knowledge to members of the Legislature who would like to have some expertise that doesn’t come from lobbyists and agency employees,” Mazzei told Oklahoma Watch, which first reported the story.

Of course, two high-profile think tanks already exist: the center-left Oklahoma Policy Institute and the uber-conservative Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. But Mazzei clearly thinks there’s room for one driven by former legislative insiders.

“Our ideological friends out there sometimes make proposals that sound good on paper, but they don’t work in the real world,” he told Oklahoma Watch. “And neither do they understand the political realities of how to get stuff done at the Capitol.”

Even though I sharply disagree with most of the OCPA’s agenda, it’s disingenuous to suggest it doesn’t know “how to get stuff done” at NE 23rd and Lincoln Boulevard. Think about where the OCPA stands on taxes and public education. Then think about what happened to Mazzei’s tax-cut-delay proposal and to school funding.

At the same time, OKPolicy performs the state’s finest, independent public policy research and analysis – you can take it to the bank. Its executive director, David Blatt, is hardly a novice when it comes to the Capitol’s horse-trading ways – he holds a Ph.D. in political science and formerly served as a state Senate budget analyst.

This is not to bash Mazzei or his think tank. Recall that I applauded his efforts to bring common sense to a GOP legislative supermajority whose DNA is dominated by Grover Norquist’s recessively anti-tax genes.

But at this point, what the Legislature really needs is more thinkers, not another think tank that serves the mainstream Republican establishment – even if it serves as a countervailing force to the OCPA’s Koch Brothers- and ALEC-esque agenda.


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