The Oklahoma House of Representatives announced on Tuesday that it will choose one chaplain to lead its daily invocations for the rest of the legislative session.
The previous policy was to designate a Chaplain of the Day or Chaplain of the Week to lead the chamber in a daily prayer. Last month, chaplain coordinator Rep. Chuck Strohm announced that state representatives could only nominate a chaplain from the representatives’ own places of worship. The announcement garnered criticism from religious groups and other lawmakers, who saw the decision as possibly shutting out non-Christian religious leaders in a majority-Christian legislature.
“What we saw, as more information was developed, was that there had been some invitations issued in the past to others, such as an imam, and that those individuals had not been allowed to serve as pastor or spiritual leader of the week at the state Capitol,” eCapitol news director Shawn Ashley told KGOU.
The choice of a permanent chaplain will occur after allowing previously approved chaplains to give their scheduled invocations.
Dick Pryor: This is Capitol Insider, your weekly look inside Oklahoma politics and policy. I'm Dick Pryor, with eCapitol news director Shawn Ashley, who has been racing around the Capitol the past few days to try to keep up with a flurry of bills. Shawn, Thursday was the first major deadline day, when bills had to be reported out of committee to advance. What struck you about what moved on, and what essentially died?
Shawn Ashley: Well, what I was expecting to see were certain bills that had the support of major legislators move forward — and some of them didn't. For example, a bill was filed by Sen. Roger Thompson, who’s actually a candidate to be Senate president pro tem in the next legislature, that would have required the legislature to do line-item budgets. It had a couple of high-powered co-authors on the Senate side as well. That bill didn't even get a hearing in the House Rules Committee and will be dead for the remainder of this legislative session. We saw something similar in the House, where bills with sponsors of individuals who are in leadership simply didn't make it out of committee.
Pryor: Does the committee deadline action provide any kind of an indication about where the session is going?
Ashley: I think that it does. What we saw in the Senate, for example, was that they are still looking at ways of generating additional revenue without raising taxes. We saw on the House side the consideration of some measures on sort of the social agenda, particularly gun bills, which seemed to be expanding gun rights and the opportunity to carry guns in Oklahoma — sort of a move away from where the rest of the nation is going.
Pryor: Agencies are taking another cut for the rest of the fiscal year. What does the House bill that did that, signed by the governor, do to the three agencies that were running out of money by around the first of May?
Ashley: Well, it's both good news and bad news for them. Of course, they lost large chunks of money when the tobacco cessation fee was found unconstitutional in August. And through a series of appropriations and then moving money around, they get a lot of that money back. But at the same time, they take a combined cut of about $14 million, just like the other agencies were asked to take in order to make the budget balanced.
Pryor: And that's the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, DHS and the Oklahoma Health Care Authority.
Ashley: That's correct.
Pryor: With another shortfall of almost $168 million expected in the next fiscal year, are lawmakers looking at more cuts to fill that hole? Or is there a chance that they will raise some revenue?
Ashley: Well, I think they're looking at moving in both directions. Over the course of the last week, as bills were heard, in particularly the House Appropriations and Budget Committee and the Senate Appropriations Committee, we saw a number of bills which would have imposed various spending reduction schemes on state agencies. Surprisingly, a number of those bills did not pass. They are beginning to look towards writing the fiscal year 2019 budget. Whether that will involve cuts to state agencies or whether it won't include some sort of new revenue plan, we're yet to know for sure. One thing is certain, though. In both the House and the Senate we saw bills approved, which would ask voters to change the number that is needed in order to approve revenue-raising measures in the House and the Senate. We will probably see something on the ballot in November to address that issue.
Pryor: To reduce the 75 percent possibly down to 60 percent needed to pass a revenue-raising measure.
Ashley: It could be 60 percent, it could be 66 percent, two-thirds. It just depends on what number they finally settle on.
Pryor: It's not all about the budget at the state Capitol. There's been some controversy about changes in the pastor program. What's that all about?
Ashley: The controversy began in the House of Representatives, where a letter from Rep. Chuck Strohm who oversees the program was made public. That letter indicated that members had to select a pastor from the congregation that they attended. What we saw, as more information was developed, was that there had been some invitations issued in the past to others, such as an imam, and that those individuals had not been allowed to serve as pastor or spiritual leader of the week at the state Capitol. Later in the week, the House changed its policy completely, and essentially will be using one chaplain through the remainder of the [session]. Ironically, on Thursday, across the rotunda in the Senate, the Senate pastor talked about some decisions, both personal and political, that seemed to be bringing the wrath of God up on not only the United States, but much of the world. That drew a response from Senate Minority Leader John Sparks, a Democrat from Norman, and Senate Democrats combined, that said that he should apologize for some of the remarks which some members on both sides of the aisle were said to have found offensive.
Pryor: That's Capitol Insider. You can hear more of our conversation on the Capitol Insider Extra podcast. Until next time, with Shawn Ashley, I'm Dick Pryor.
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