By Patrick B. McGuigan
In a wide-ranging interview, Lieutenant Governor Jari Askins talked about her passion for Oklahoma, her disdain for D.C.-style politics, concerns about upcoming budget challenges, and television advertisements criticizing votes she cast in the state House several years ago.
Today (Friday, September 24), Askins also restated opposition to State Question 744. She said the state is likely facing a $1 billion funding gap, making next year’s budget process difficult even without a massive funding shift if the initiative prevails.
She told CapitolBeatOK, “I’ve been speaking against State Question 744 for a year. I believe we need more money in our classrooms, but this flawed proposal has no funding mechanism.”
Askins reflected, “Sometimes observers say Oklahoma has a system that results in a strong Legislature and a weak governor. But an area where a governor can clearly impact or direct policy is in the budget. The kind of a mandate in S.Q. 744 would simply cripple my ability, as governor, to negotiate with legislative leaders.”
Asked to identify key issues in her campaign as the Democratic nominee for governor, Askins said, “First, my heart is in Oklahoma. People tell me they believe I’m who I am, all the time. What you see is what you get. People use the words ‘genuine and authentic.’ I hope that’s right. It’s so gratifying.
“Second, I care about Oklahoma. It is my focus. I’ve had no desire to work in Washington, D.C. or to live there. I don’t like the way business, the people’s business, is done there. I care about Oklahoma. That has always been my focus.
“Third, my reputation, both personal and working or professional. I like and enjoy people, meeting them and learning their concerns and trying to make life better in Oklahoma.
“In the public or professional arena, I have always tried to find solutions, rather than to divide or conquer. I have found that people don’t like the fighting and bitterness that has come to characterize so much of politics, and that is so pervasive in Washington.
“I have a reputation for working without regard to partisanship. I work with different groups well. That’s urban and rural, east and west, and between the parties, to take their ideas and make a better solution for everyone. You know, Oklahoma is not a big enough state to fight among ourselves like they do in D.C.”
Describing Oklahoma’s continuing budget challenges, Askins said, “It’s a big part of the reason I decided to run. This is exactly the time, the sort of circumstances, when I need to be … a decision-maker. I believe that in the midst of this slow-moving recovery, my experience in the appropriations process is a perfect fit to the situation in which we find ourselves. You can be certain I will have important conversations with Speaker-designate Kris Steele and the new Senate President Pro Tem is to assure we get engaged to make the tough choices.”
Askins said state leaders might want to consider “doing things differently at the Capitol this year. I think we can and should do the budget first. If you look ahead at the 2011 session, the two most important things we need to deal with are the budget and of course reapportionment of the legislative and congressional districts.
“These are tough times, as the budget cuts that had to be made in 2002-03 have never really been fully restored. And now we’re dealing with a whole new set of budget reductions.”
Askins recalled, “I’m comfortable dealing with the budget issues. Looking back, ten of my 12 years in the Legislature I was right in the middle of the budget and appropriations process because of my position on that House committee.”
CapitolBeatOK asked if there is a need for changes in what government does, or room for more budget cuts. She replied, “I’m not sure there are entire areas to step away from, but we do need to burrow deeper in the way the agencies operate. I will try to get on the ballot a state question, a proposal to convert to a two-year state budget cycle, which might help elevate the policy focus and avoid some of the politics.
“Under this idea, every other year would be a ‘budget only’ year at the Legislature. This would allow the opportunity to work more carefully on spending issues and to answer questions such as what you asked.”
Askins asserts, “The process can be improved. There are 101 members in the House. I think that we can probably have every member serve on a budget subcommittee, as is the case in the Senate, as a way to make the process more inclusive.
“As for the things government does, there may not actually be duplicative services across agency lines, but there are similarities that might mean work can more efficiently be done elsewhere. I am certain we have to look more deeply at the programs and the processes within the agencies. And certainly, if we don’t look for duplication or inefficiencies, we won’t ever find them.”
She added, “The time to make ourselves, our government, more efficient is right now, when the need to do so is so manifest and clear.”
Her advertising push in the final weeks of the election will include more focus on her personal record and achievements: “I still own my home in Duncan. All I’ve ever had here in Oklahoma City is an apartment. I have kept my roots at home, in my community. I go home as many weekends as I can to Duncan, and when I’m there I attend First Christian Church of Duncan. I still sing in the choir.”
Making her case versus the Republican nominee, Askins said, “I think one important difference is qualifications, and what is needed for this particular time in Oklahoma history. My background growing up in the family small business helps me understand that in business and in government every penny matters. It certainly matters to me.
“The next 18 to 24 months are going to be rough, even though Oklahoma is better positioned than many states. The recovery is under way, but it is slow to show itself to some people. Comparatively, Oklahoma is still not where we need to be. It’s not unusual for unemployment to lag behind in a time of recovery, but that doesn’t make it easier if you’re the one unemployed.”
Askins has faced criticisms for a vote she cast as a member of the House, supporting a Republican-sponsored bill providing educational benefits to the children of illegal immigrants. She told CapitolBeatOK:
“I voted for a bill to allow children who have graduated from Oklahoma high schools be able to access the higher education system. I knew when making the decision to run for governor that attempts would be made to tie me to Washington D.C. and just have that be enough reasons to oppose me.”
She continued, “When you serve in the Oklahoma House for 12 years, you eventually cast thousands of votes. You vote on nearly every conceivable issue. Some might not understand that you oppose a bill that has good provisions because there is something or more than one bad thing that more than offsets the good tings or vice versa.
“A 10 second sound-bite on a vote I cast seven years ago might not be fully illuminating of what I think and feel. Taking one short snapshot like that does not reflect my work product, my approach to working with others.
“I will point out that the bill on higher education benefits passed overwhelmingly in the House, then went to conference committee and back to the House. It was closer the second time but still popular. It was about kids, about children who had graduated from high schools in Oklahoma, about establishing a process to move them toward citizenship. I thought that it seemed better than leaving them to the streets or pushing them toward gangs.”
She said support for the bill benefiting children has been distorted:
“We have to control our borders as a country. As a judge, I know the impact of illegal activity. Some come to our state to commit crimes. Drug trafficking and even human trafficking are among those criminal activities.
“For those who come here to work legally, or study, or who want to become a legal citizen, we have to find a way to advance citizenship that doesn’t take years and years. It shouldn’t take 12 years or more and $15,000 to do that. The federal government has to step up, to control the borders and to create a process so people can legally fulfill their dreams.
“Any attempt to tie me to D.C. doesn’t work and won’t work, especially with the people I’ve represented at the Capitol. … I’ve never met Barack Obama. I’ve never met Nancy Pelosi. I’m not the one who has lived and worked in Washington D.C. for years. I’m not running to be governor of Washington, D.C. I’m running to be governor of Oklahoma.”
Askins commented, “The rise of the Tea Party movement is evidence that a lot of people are angry at elected officials who won’t listen to their concerns about spending, about all issues. I encourage people to look at my record. I work in coalitions and I work with and not around people.
“This is an important election for Oklahoma. I want to help keep the ship of state steady and moving forward. I have the confidence in my own beliefs to listen to others and help fashion the best policy. That is about Oklahoma and not a political agenda.
“I believe the negative ads from out-of-state will likely continue, and will show that there are some who don’t believe in the way things are best done in Oklahoma, by working together. We’re still a populist state and I’m not sure our people like being told by out-of-staters how they ought to vote. We don’t like being told what to do.”