By Patrick B. McGuigan
If there’s one thing Republicans and Democrats agree on, it is that budget, revenue, spending and finances are the dominant issues of the 2010 legislative session. Unsurprisingly, the themes were borne out during an interview this week with Majority Leader Todd Lamb.
Dominating nearly every discussion at the Capitol, Sen. Lamb said, is “the need for fiscal discipline. We are in the midst of a serious downturn unlike anything I’ve seen.”
Lamb sat for a conversation with CapitolBeatOK not long after the state Senate voted to suspend the rules. That action allowed the process to accelerate by about one week. The first Republican in state history to serve as Senate Majority Leader, Lamb said the measure passed unanimously, “or, at least I didn’t hear any negative votes.”
The Edmond Republican praised the work of Appropriations Committee Chairman Mike Johnson of Kingfisher. While seeing the need for increased budget discipline, Lamb said, “I certainly don’t want to see layoffs or furloughs of our highway patrolmen. I have in the course of my career, I’m proud to say, worked with virtually every law enforcement agency. They are topnotch people. Their needs are certainly a priority for me.”
With the state on the cusp of major spending decisions, Lamb reported Republican leaders were “hopeful that furloughs can be avoided. We should be able to avoid major disruptions to the Department of Public Safety and to the Highway Patrol.”
He told CapitolBeatOK, “Citizens can only be protected if we are attentive to adequately fund key services. In Corrections, we must keep bad people locked up, those who would prey on our citizens and who have preyed on our citizens. Public safety is absolutely foundational.”
Pressed for details on an accord expected soon concerning expenditures from the Constitutional Reserve, better known as the Rainy Day Fund, Sen. Lamb said he was “reluctant” to name a dollar figure that might emerge from discussions among Senate President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee, House Speaker Chris Benge and Gov. Brad Henry. He observed, “Education is a priority, as is the Health Care Finance Authority.” He also expects the CareerTech system to gain a strong supplemental appropriation before session’s end.
On spending matters in a broader sense, Lamb reflected, “You know, the term ‘shortfall’ is interesting. We’re looking at being able to spend about what government actually cost in its entirety in 2005. That’s not ancient history. It brings us to an underlying problem in government and that is to ‘right-size’ it. There’s a lot of work to do, without a doubt. But even in tight budget times we have a lot of money with which to work.”
Lamb told CapitolBeatOK, “The Republicans have stayed together on assuring there is more left in the Rainy Day Fund than what the governor has been saying.” He continued, “As it is raining, this Legislature is duty-bound to draw down some of that money. But our duty also extends to assuring there is something left for a future Legislature, perhaps next year’s, to have adequate money to protect us in future heavy ‘rain storms.’”
Lamb continued, “I am very cognizant of the need, the necessity, to be creative and work to help Oklahoma companies remain thriving and prosperous. We must do everything in our power to make Oklahoma attractive to business and investment. I’m ready for a ‘reverse Grapes of Wrath,’ to watch those Californians who have Oklahoma roots and creativity come back home after their families have spent all these years on the west coast. Seriously, I think we’re going to see migration from California back to Oklahoma accelerating.”
With the illness that has forced Sen. Mike Mazzei of Tulsa to limit his time at the Capitol, Lamb has pressed for passage of his colleague’s Senate Bill 1970, to allow companies to continue providing certain benefits to employees working less than 40 hours a week.
“We need to find ways to help companies protect employee benefits while remaining competitive,” Lamb said. He said similar efforts in 18 states have helped retain employee benefits for those working less than a traditional 40-hour week. “The bottom line,” he said, “is to keep moms and dads employed in these challenging economic times.”
He also said, “Workers comp reform will be a key priority for me and for the caucus this session.” He stressed, “Workers comp is really a #1 item for job growth and for retention, which is in my mind almost as important.” On Wednesday (February 17) a cluster of Republican proposals for workers comp reform passed the House Economic Development and Financial Services Committee.
Lamb is also guiding Republican proposals to combat the horrors of human trafficking. His lead proposal is Senate Bill 956.
Another proposal of Lamb’s is Senate Bill 1881, which early this week was described as a “shell bill.” The “Oklahoma Department of Commerce Act” would, Lamb said, deal with “the administration and governance of the Oklahoma Department of Commerce, to give a little more consistency in management and direction.” The measure could include provisions for a professional executive director “who can focus more long-term and not be diverted by politics.”
Lamb is seeking the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor, emphasizing in campaign stops “business and jobs retention. The real fight is not outside our state. That doesn’t mean we ignore other places, but the real focus has to be right here, and how to keep jobs right here. We want to see entrepreneurs thriving and prospering in our state.”
Sen. Lamb said he is serious about the “reverse Grapes of Wrath” imagery, explaining: “Think about it, in California you might have an earthquake on a Monday, a Mudslide on a Tuesday, a wildfire on a Wednesday, a bankrupt state on a Thursday, and then in time for the weekend you wake up with no place to work. California is overtaxed and overworked.
“I see great opportunity for Oklahoma to bring Californians with Oklahoma roots back home where they belong. My children are 9 and 6. I want them to stay right here when they’re adults and ready to go to work.”