Next year’s Legislature will look different (Capitol Update)

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.

No matter what happens in the elections — which promises to be plenty — the legislature next year is going to look, sound, and be very different. Thirty-two, nearly one-third, of the House seats are open. Many who are voluntarily leaving early have had an important impact. It will be strange indeed to see the legislature convene next year without the presence of these members.

Rep. Pat Ownbey has been a stalwart for human and social services. Rep. Katie Henke, a former teacher, was a strong moderate voice on education and social services. Rep. Leslie Osborn has served extremely well in several important roles, among them Chair of Judiciary and Chair of Appropriations and Budget. Rep. Tim Downing, a freshman this year, was poised to take the mantle on criminal justice legislation but decided not to file for a second term. Rep. Michael Rogers was chair of Education. Rep. Cory Williams decided to run for DA to continue his battle for criminal justice reform rather than continuing the fight holding the short end of the stick as a member of the legislative minority. As usual, several members who are terming out will take with them the knowledge they gained over 12 years. Rep. Earl Sears, a former Appropriations chairman, had become a budget expert. Rep. Randy McDaniel spent many hours working on state retirement fund legislation. And Rep. Scott Inman will leave a giant vacuum, having led the Democrats for 7 of his 12 years in the House.

In the Senate, seven members are terming out. Sen. Mike Schulz has led as Majority Floor Leader and President Pro Tempore most of his time in the Senate. Sen. Bill Brown has been Chair of the Insurance Committee in the Senate for several years and handled those bills. And Sen. John Sparks has been the Democratic leader exercising his even-handed influence where he could with a small minority. Sen. Gary Stanislawski has been Chair of Education and influential on other issues like health care and insurance. Five senators chose not to file for re-election. Among them, Sen. AJ Griffin has been the outstanding “go to” person for all things related to children and youth during her entire eight years of service. Her shoes will be hard to fill.

In addition to those leaving voluntarily or terming out, it’s not hard to imagine that at least a few, more than usual, incumbents are vulnerable to the turmoil in the electorate. I wouldn’t try to guess who they might be. Teachers at the grassroots level finally had enough and revolted. Members who chose not to run had their various reasons, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the roiling in the body politic influenced at least some of them to move on. After all, two regular sessions and two special sessions in a two-year span doesn’t leave a lot of time for the rest of life. Some members are probably just worn out. Whether all this turns into a bellwether election changing the direction of the state will depend on whether candidates can turn their frustration and anger into electoral victories and whether incumbents who win will sense the ground shifting under them and deliver what the people want.

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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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