Five Things To Watch In The 2014 Oklahoma Legislative Session
The first Monday in February means the parking lots are full surrounding the domed building at the intersection of NE 23rd Street and Lincoln Blvd. in Oklahoma City. Here are five things political scientists and state capitol reporters expect to see between now and the end of May.
COBURN’S SHADOW LOOMS LARGE
U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn’s (R-Okla.) decision to step down in January 2015, two years before the end of his six-year term, sent a row of state and federal lawmakers tumbling over like dominoes seeking to fill the series of voids created by a handful of soon-to-be-vacant seats.
University of Oklahoma political scientist Keith Gaddie compared political ambition in a federal system to a PEZ dispenser.
“You take out one piece of candy, and everything else pops up,” Gaddie says. “[U.S. Rep. James Lankford’s Senate candidacy] opens up Congressional District Five, which has one-fifth of the legislature in it, so suddenly you’ve got every state lawmaker who’s approaching term limits considering making this run, and it just ripples out.”
The Journal Record’s State Capitol bureau chief M. Scott Carter says with leadership on both sides of the state Capitol seeking Coburn’s and Lankford’s seats, the instability affects the legislature beyond just this session up to the general election in November.
“You really can’t be an effective House Speaker and run for a statewide office like the United States Senate during the legislative session,” Carter says. “So [T.W.] Shannon is kind of transitioning out, and this has led to a huge amount of jockeying in the 72-member Republican caucus on who’s going to replace him.”
eCapitol’s News Director Shawn Ashley, a longtime state budget observer, says state Sen. Clark Jolley’s candidacy for the Fifth District seat could affect his ability to do his job as the Senate Appropriations Chair.
“Not only do you have the act of writing the budget itself, which lasts all session, but you’re also looking at other legislation that could have effects on the budget,” Ashley says. “Changes in policies involving state agencies can cost money. You’re keeping your eye on a lot of moving parts.”
Carter says the dust will settle when a true candidate emerges to replace Shannon with enough votes, and he expects that to come a few weeks after the session begins.
FALLIN’S EXECUTIVE BUDGET
When the State Board of Equalization met in December, it approved a revenue estimate roughly $171 million less than the current fiscal year. Fallin has said her executive budget will include an income tax cut.
“Gov. Fallin and her finance secretary Preston Doerflinger seem confident that there’s going to be some additional revenue,” Ashley says. “When you talk about cutting the individual income tax, if you’re going to do it effective January 1, 2015, that’s going to increase that difference from $171 million to whatever the effect of that income tax cut is. So she has a lot of work to do to balance that budget.”
Carter says if the budget takes into account that $171 million shortfall, some state agencies will have to give up something, even as there have been calls for pay increases for state corrections and public safety employees.
“[Senate Minority Leader Sean Burrage] talked about education being down about $200 million since 2008, and that’s a huge issue for common education in Oklahoma, because teachers haven’t seen a pay raise in several years.”
Ashley says former state Treasurer Scott Meacham once pointed out the top seven Oklahoma state agencies eat up roughly 85 percent of all appropriated dollars.
“There’s not a lot of wiggle room out there,” Ashley says. “During a recent a budget hearing, Doerflinger said he thought most state agencies could still cut their budgets 3–5 percent. Some state agency leaders were shocked to hear that. So there is an attitude within Gov. Fallin’s administration that there still are cuts that can be made, and reductions that can be implemented, and services still delivered.”
AN ATTACK ON THE JUDICIARY?
Gaddie says he expects the legislature to pass at least one measure this year that will be ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court. The Court ruled last year a bill to fund state Capitol repairs and cut the state’s income tax violated the Constitution’s single-subject rule.
House Speaker T.W. Shannon and the State Chamber have both said they’re interested in looking at judicial reform and changing the way judges are elected and appointed.
“It’s never a bad idea to go back and reexamine how you engage in selection and retention in government,” Gaddie says. “But if the judiciary had not been throwing this stuff out, we wouldn’t be talking about reform.”
Carter says the fight, which is mainly focused on the Supreme Court, goes back to the appointment of two justices in the final days of Brad Henry’s administration.
“The Senate went after the Judicial Nominating Commission, passed a bill, and got a constitutional amendment through that added more members to the JNC,” Carter says. “And I think it was in response to the fact that a Democratic governor got to appoint six members of the Oklahoma Supreme Court. That really concerned them.”
TO BOND OR NOT TO BOND
Fallin and Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman have both indicated they’d be willing to support bond issues to fix the state Capitol, or to fund the OKPOP museum in Tulsa or the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum in Oklahoma City. But state Rep. Mike Jackson, a likely Speaker candidate, says his caucus supports a pay-as-you-go method.
“If we take on new debt now, we’re going to take it on at a much lower interest rate, which means that we can take on more debt for less cost in terms of bond maintenance,” Gaddie says. “State government can only run secured debt, and that’s what the bonds do. Pay-as-you-go works if you’re flush with new cash, and at present we see that we are not.”
Carter says House Republicans want to take a federal issue like government debt, and try to put a state stamp on the problem.
“We’ve ‘federalized’ state debt, and it doesn’t work,” Carter says. “You’re going to have to sell bonds at some point to provide for infrastructure. The House Republican caucus is probably going to run up against the governor and the Senate, because I think both of those other two branches of government are likely to embrace bonds.”
Ashley says conflict over whether or not to issue bonds could be the big budget issue of the year. House Speaker T.W. Shannon’s opponent in the Senate primary, U.S. Rep. James Lankford, has already been attacked by conservative groups for voting in favor of raising the federal debt ceiling.
“It’s a different issue, but it does relate to debt,” Ashley says. “So what Speaker Shannon does on the House floor, or even in caucus, is going to play into that Senate race, and vice versa.”
Ashley says once lawmakers reach an agreement to issue bonds, every lawmaker comes knocking on the door wanting to be on the project list.
“You see how strong your potentially new leadership is as to how tightly they can keep that control.”
EDUCATION FUNDING NOT CONTENTIOUS, BUT STANDARDS ARE
At the end of the 2013 session, House Speaker T.W. Shannon spoke out more vocally against the national Common Core education standards, but House leaders settled for a resolution condemning them.
“There’s a fight to be had,” Ashley says. “For the Senate, it’s not that big of an issue. I think they’re content with those standards and don’t want to fight over them, but the House will be firing some shots at the Senate with some legislation to get rid of it.”
Gaddie says there’s opposition to Common Core from both Democrats and Republicans, with the State Chamber and the business community supporting the standards in an effort to create a more highly-trained statewide workforce.
“The national government got into state education through the back door through desegregation… and through the Great Society used education as a vehicle to provide social services where needed," Gaddie says. “As we take those federal dollars, we complain that the feds want to actually attach terms to getting those dollars. So the same folks that want to run government like a business object when we use business-style metrics to assess performance.”