COMMENTARY: OK Grading the 2013 State Legislature and Gov. Fallin
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Published: 03-Jun-2013

OKLAHOMA CITY – In response to questions from members of the Capitol press corps, Gov. Mary Fallin, Speaker of the House T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, and Senate President Pro Temp Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, have given the 2013 Legislative session grades ranging from A to B+. 

To give them their due, the new workers’ compensation reforms may save businesses hundreds of millions of dollars in insurance premiums – eventually. While clearly a set of reforms Oklahoma’s leading business and free market groups have pushed for many years, the implementation stage could prove, temporarily, costly. Sure, a net plus in the years ahead.

Passage of workers’ comp reform tends to ratify the sage wisdom of Ed Kelley, my former executive editor at the state’s largest newspaper. He used to say the Legislature could accomplish one big thing every year. This year -- tornado relief aside -- that one thing was workers comp reform. 

The trio of Republicans were joyful several weeks ago as they announced agreement on legislation to nip the personal income tax rate by a quarter of a percent, but allies were deflated by the news that implementation of the cut will not come until 2015.

To be clear on this, Mary Fallin will be a few days away from beginning her anticipated second term in office before the government she now runs gives taxpayers, for the first time, what she promised over and over during the 2010 campaign – tax relief.

Although the governor says a few hundred thousand dollars in savings, resulting from consolidation of several boards and commissions, is “right-sizing,”  it is not – it is, rather, tweaking the system. Not bad, but not substantial. 

To clarify briefly the picture detailed in past news reports and commentaries, Oklahoma government will grow for the third year in a row – by at least $251 million this year, and by about $800 million since Mary Fallin became governor

The “Big Three” in charge of state government have given $91 million more to the K-12 education system that is sustaining sub-par performance and fighting, often with taxpayers money, school choice and other real reform programs. 

Higher education grew more than $30 million, without even one example of consolidation or administrative discipline to deliver college and university instruction more efficiently. 

The CareerTech system got several million more. 

In short, the education system got more money without having to make any real changes in delivery of services or in teacher accountability. 

One collective failure for state government this year is the likely demise of Insure Oklahoma, a classic compromise forged in the 1990s that allowed use of tobacco settlement money to provide premium support to the working poor. President Obama gets his share of the blame for this result, but so does Speaker Shannon.

Gov. Fallin vetoed an incremental pension reform to create a more sustainable long-term pension and retirement plan for state government workers. While that was her prerogative, and her plans for consolidation of administrative functions for state retirement systems are laudable, the veto was bad policy

Despite overwhelming support for the pension proposal in both chambers and among members of both parties, no attempt was made to override the chief executive. In this, the Legislature failed in its independent role as maker of laws.  

Fallin , Shannon and Bingman want conservatives to cheer because they will lower income taxes by .25 percent – two years from now. 

This essay is a challenge to the collective policy judgment of our top state politicians, not a challenge to their personal decency. The Sooner State’s political leaders are accessible when compared to our president, who rarely has unscripted interactions with the national press corps.

My colleagues in many states don’t get the sort of access that we do in Oklahoma City. 

Still, it’s not the job of reporters and commentators to be cheerleaders for a moribund legislative session, even after we get to talk things over with state leaders.

Thanks to workers’ comp, give the last four months in state government a C +, but no grade higher than that.

With all the cards in their hands, Oklahoma Republicans with power were merely average in 2013. 

You may contact Patrick B. McGuigan at Patrick@capitolbeatok.com and follow us on Twitter: @capitolbeatok.

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