Secret votes and unwillingness to lead are prolonging Oklahoma’s budget stalemate (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.

What’s going on with the special session?

I’m reliably informed that Republican House members, in their caucus meetings, have discussed and voted on 27 different budget scenarios. Of the 27 proposals, none have received more than 39 votes, and some received as low as 8 votes. What are these 27 budget proposals? We don’t know because party caucus meetings are held behind closed doors. And it has become a tradition that caucus members are in violation of some sort of honor code it they reveal what’s said in caucus. This is to allow free and open discussion among party members, the theory being that legislators will be afraid to bring up controversial, possibly unpopular, ideas if anyone outside the room finds out they did so. This is not a particularly admirable quality of the legislative psyche, but it’s a nod to reality. The real problem, however, is the caucuses taking these votes which then are accepted as the policy of the state while constituents have no way of knowing how their representative voted.

Something must change or the three state agencies that deal with mental health, social services to the vulnerable and payment for Medicaid services are going to have to manage a $519 million shortfall between now and June 30th. Realistically, they’ll have to divide the cuts over about a seven-month period. Then they’ll have to face even more cuts in the following year. House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols has hinted the cuts won’t be so deep because legislators will find a way to move money around to soften the cuts. But no one knows if that scenario will pass either. No doubt some members are so disgusted with failure to fix the budget problem they will not vote for another band-aid approach. And the governor has promised a veto on any bill that cuts budgets.

I’m assuming that House leadership does want to raise at least enough state revenue ($215 million) to match federal revenues and fill the $519 million current year budget gap. If they don’t, that explains why it won’t happen. But if House leadership does want to get the job done, then why are we stalemated? I’ve never, ever seen a legislative body accomplish a difficult task the leadership truly wants to accomplish by simply taking a vote behind closed doors then declaring failure. In fact, it’s nearly impossible for a legislative body to move unless the leadership goes out on a limb, declares what it wants to do and goes after the votes. A recipe for accomplishing nothing is when the leadership simply declares it wants to do whatever the caucus wants to do.

If House leadership doesn’t want to raise taxes, then own it. There’s likely a lot of support for that position in a conservative state like Oklahoma. If it does, then craft a proposal broad enough to have a realistic chance of passage, persuade as many members as possible, both Democratic and Republican, with the necessary give and take, then put the members on record with a public vote. Nothing helps a legislator focus like knowing he’s going to have to account to his constituents for his vote. Every legislative leader wants to keep his members from having to vote on a difficult issue, but that’s not job one. Legislators were elected to vote publicly on critically important issues. These principles are not partisan. They work both ways. It just happens that Republicans control the agenda.

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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.

One thought on “Secret votes and unwillingness to lead are prolonging Oklahoma’s budget stalemate (Capitol Update)

  1. If the Oklahoma legislature were not slaves to the petroleum industry and the radicals who insist no tax increases when its obviousl to everyone else they are needed unless our state seeks to turn back the clock. I suppose the rads are like a city councilman in a small town in Oklahoma who demanded to know why people wanted the streets paved, when dirt roads were good enough for our forefathers! Should we label the rads as the “dirt street boys”?

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