Policy discussions slowing down under new governor (Capitol Update)

For a while there was speculation that the Legislature would adjourn on May 10th, which would be this Friday, 3 weeks before the constitutionally-mandated deadline. Safe to say that’s not happening. Then the speculation moved to May 17th. Given the time frames needed to pass measures, even after agreements are reached, that date is now somewhere between overly optimistic and almost impossible. Speculation now centers on May 24th, one week ahead of the deadline. What happened?

This session has been a shake-down cruise between the new governor and the Legislature. Governor Stitt, straight in from being Citizen Stitt had a clear idea of the one thing he hoped to accomplish early in his administration, and that was to consolidate as much executive power as possible into the office of the governor. On this issue he found an enthusiastic Senate and a reluctant but willing House of Representatives. Fairly quickly, the three parties arrived at a compromise. It remains to be seen how well the new system will work, especially for the long term. But it seemed the era of good feelings would endure and transition into an early adjournment.

But as the session moved on to other issues, legislators, especially those with experience and leadership positions, also expressed strong opinions about what’s good for the state. When it comes to the budget, criminal justice reform, state employee wages, and other issues large and small, the governor is not the boss of the Legislature. In fact, he’s part of the legislative process, with power equal to one-third the votes in the legislature. His vote, exercised by using his veto power, can only be outweighed with the votes of two-thirds of the members of both chambers. But it can be outweighed.

It seems to me the governor only seriously entered budget and policy discussions around two weeks ago. Before that it was the House and Senate talking to each other and carrying on the committee and floor action necessary to put bills on the governor’s desk. With the governor’s entry into discussions, things began to move back into first gear and slow down. Governor Stitt, understandably, doesn’t have deep knowledge of a lot of the issues on which he now has to engage. He’s likely surprised, in good and bad ways, by a lot of the inner workings of state government he’s seeing for the first time.

The problem is the overcrowded prison system, the underpaid state employees, the shameful lack of medical and mental health care for thousands of Oklahomans, and the neglected education system are here now and need attention now. Listening closely to what he’s saying, it seems the governor would like to delay a lot of major decisions the Legislature has been considering until sometime in the future when he’s more ready to impact them. That’s understandable, but he’s the guy who said the Oklahoma turnaround begins right here, right now!

The governor is very fortunate. He’s a Republican and has a super majority Republican Legislature to work with, with leaders who want to get along. Obviously, they don’t want to sour the relationship with a bunch of veto overrides. So hopefully the parties can get together, fund education, pass legitimate, not delayed or watered-down criminal justice reform, find a way to expand Medicaid using Insure Oklahoma, and congratulate each other on a wildly successful session on May 24th or sooner.


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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