New session could be pivotal year for Oklahoma (Capitol Update)

The legislative session began Monday with the governor’s state of the state address to a joint session. Committee work will begin in earnest on Tuesday with at least two Senate committees — Judiciary and Retirement and Insurance — hearing bills that have been preliminarily assigned to them. As most observers and participants know, the legislative session operates like a fire hose once session starts. Nearly 3,000 House bills and over 1,000 Senate bills, many of which are either “shell” bills with no substantive language or “statement” bills never intended for passage, will have to be pared down to the several hundred that finally reach the governor’s desk.

Despite it being an election year, the summer and fall produced quite a few constructive interim studies, and among the introduced bills there are plenty to make for a productive legislative session. I look for education and the budget measures to consume the most time, and probably fireworks, with the new state superintendent and the legislature working to get on the same page. Symptomatic of the challenge is Superintendent Ryan Walters’ plan to use the Teacher and Leadership Effectiveness Evaluation System (TLE) for his new merit pay plan while Sen. Adam Pugh, R-Edmond, has introduced Senate Bill 526 that removes all reference to TLE and incentive pay plans from Oklahoma statutes.

With existing coffers full and increased money for appropriations available, most state agencies will be looking to improve programs and services that have long been underfunded. Although mental health issues for children, youth and adults have been front of mind, if not at crisis level, in recent months and years, both the Oklahoma Health Care Authority and the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services have requested a flat budget at the governor’s urging. Legislators will likely take a closer look and try to meet citizen needs. 

New Attorney General Gentner Drummond, a political newcomer with not necessarily the same outlook as his predecessor John O’Connor, will probably bring some new ideas to the legislature while new the state treasurer, former Rep. Todd Russ, seems to be pretty much on the same page as former Treasurer Randy McDaniel, who was also a former state representative. Gov. Stitt, beginning his second term is no longer the new kid on the block. He’s no longer a businessman putting a “new set of eyes” on state government. He’s the guy who’s been in charge for the past four years and should be at full stride. 

All in all, this could be a pivotal year for the state. There are plenty of resources and plenty of willing workers in the legislature and in the executive agencies with good ideas. It will be interesting to look back at the end of May and see whether our leaders made good use of the session or spent their time promoting conspiracies, requiring citizens to conform to narrow ideologies, and solving non-existent problems. There will be some of that. It’s politics. Hopefully, the ideas that hurt some people will be left behind, and thoughtful legislators will be successful at moving the state forward.


Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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