Patrick B. McGuigan
OKLAHOMA CITY – At the state Capitol in Oklahoma City, the first week of the 2013 legislative session is bringing few surprises (other than Tuesday’s brief fire in one meeting room on the fourth floor).
In terms of policy debates, Republicans tended to like, and Democrats to dislike, Gov. Mary Fallin’s State of the State address, and the budget she submitted along with the speech.
No surprise, Lt. Gov Todd Lamb, a fellow Republican, thought it was great speech. In comments sent to CapitolBeatOK, Lamb said:
“Governor Fallin outlined a vision that builds upon Oklahoma’s continued success by focusing on a responsible government and a strong, competitive business climate. I was pleased to hear workers’ compensation reform mentioned. As I traveled the entire state in 2012, the number one issue small business owners brought to my attention was the need for comprehensive reform. A plan for Oklahoma that focuses on our strengths will keep us moving down the road to growth.
“As elected officials, we are tasked with the responsibility of efficiently managing tax payer dollars and effectively growing our state. With vision and leadership, Oklahoma will continue to prosper and provide a thriving state for future generations.”
House Speaker T.W. Shannon was mildly critical when he reflected on the governor’s proposal to empower local communities to go beyond state policy when it comes to anti-tobacco ordinances. However, he was completely positive in his formal remarks to reporters Monday afternoon, saying:
“I stand firmly with Gov. Fallin in her commitment to conservative policies and her willingness to further create opportunity and prosperity for Oklahomans. We must continue to fight together against overreach from the federal government into our state sovereignty. I am committed to working with Gov. Fallin on any initiative that protects our citizens’ inherent rights and pushes back against the ever-expanding federal debt and uncertainty in Washington, D.C.
“In addition, I am pleased with the governor’s commitment to making sure Oklahoma is producing the kind of highly skilled, highly educated workforce that can attract and retain high paying jobs.
“Gov. Fallin also expressed the need to eliminate underused state assets and repair neglected infrastructure. I look forward to working with Gov. Fallin and Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman to create a system which will ensure better stewardship of state structures. For too long the model has been to neglect infrastructure until it is finally decaying around us.
We must institute a system that is efficient and shows we are good stewards of taxpayers’ money because our state’s assets truly belong to them.”
Senate President Pro Temp Brian Bingman also sounded upbeat notes: "I applaud Governor Fallin for her continued work on the issues important to moving Oklahoma forward. The Governor's remarks in the State of the State, focused on growing jobs and the economy, were especially well received. We know Oklahoma's runaway workers' compensation system is the number one roadblock to a strong business climate in our state, and I appreciate Governor Fallin's commitment to work with the legislature on this critical issue.”
State Sen. Kyle Loveless, a freshman Republican from Oklahoma City, told CapitolBeatOK: “While not a glamorous topic, I thought Governor Fallin was correct in focusing on the important infrastructure in our state that drives economic development, roads and bridges. As Transportation Vice-Chair, I look forward to working with her and all interested parties in making this a priority."
"It is time Oklahomans receive an income-tax cut. Not only have we all heard about the success story of no income taxes in Texas, but our neighbors to the north, Kansas are aggressively cutting theirs as well. We need to stay competitive and prevent companies from skipping over Oklahoma because of lower tax burdens in other states.
"While she did not specifically mention, I know the Governor is committed to completing the American Indian and Cultural Center Museum that sits square in my district in South Oklahoma City. We are past the stage of finger pointing and regret, we need to get this done so it is not an eye-sore on our state and a missed opportunity for economic development. I am committed to working with the Governor and leadership in both chambers to make sure we get this done."
Minority Leader Scott Inman, a Del City Democrat, said in a prepared statement, “We stand with the governor in working to ensure continued growth in Oklahoma, but her approaches that slash revenues and target benefits and core services for our seniors, our veterans, our children, and our disabled community members in the name of ‘small government’ just don’t add up.”
Inman and his colleagues were particularly pointed in expressing disappointment that Fallin did not press the Legislature for more funding for the Departments of Corrections and Public Safety, saying, “Gov. Fallin’s plan for the coming year is skeletal at best, in terms of the solutions we need to address the most pressing concerns of our state.
“If we really want to put the pedal to the metal and propel Oklahoma’s growth as the governor said, we need to adequately fund our core state services. We do not need to continue the down-size of the state government, done largely on the back of our poor and most vulnerable communities.
“Gov. Fallin emphasized that a responsible government is an ethical government and we full-heartedly agree. We would hope, then, that she recognizes an ethical government meets the needs of all its people, and not just the most privileged few, and that ‘free market principles’ do not preclude empathy for the most vulnerable among us.”
The state Chamber of Commerce has generally gotten its way when it comes to public policy during the Fallin administration. President Fred Morgan, a former Republican legislator, gave Fallin’s remarks his strong approval. In a statement sent to CapitolBeatOK, he said:
“Oklahoma is incredibly fortunate to have state and legislative leaders who are focused on jobs and growing our state’s economy. Many other states are not in that same position.
“Gov. Fallin described her ‘laser-like focus on reform efforts that remove barriers to economic growth’ in her State of the State, and we share that motivation. … We agree that more needs to be done with our state’s workers’ compensation system to ensure the system works better for all involved, employer and employee alike. Nothing will be more important this session.
“We also share Gov. Fallin’s passion for improving our state’s workforce in order to better compete in the global economy. All Oklahomans must strive to be college, career or citizen ready — this is a critical economic development issue for our state.
“We thank Gov. Fallin for keeping the ‘pedal to the metal’ and stand ready to work alongside her and other state and legislative leaders this session to continue Oklahoma’s pro-growth momentum.”
David Blatt, director of the progressive Oklahoma Policy Institute, based in Tulsa, attended the governor’s speech. In comments sent to CapitolBeatOK, he said, “It is a positive sign for Oklahoma that the Governor has significantly scaled back her tax cut proposal from last year. Unfortunately, she continues to push for a cut that would take $106 million from Oklahoma schools, public safety, and other core state services without offering any way to pay for it.
“The Governor rightfully recognized a need to invest in mental health care, drug treatment, and child welfare to fix longstanding problems in those areas.
“Yet in other areas her budget falls far short. Governor Fallin's common education proposal restores less than 5 percent of what Superintendent Barresi says our schools need to fund new mandates passed by the legislature, restore teacher cuts, and keep up with rising enrollment and class sizes.
“The governor's budget fails utterly to address the dangerous situation in our corrections system of overcrowded jails with inadequate staff. Despite Governor Fallin's acknowledgement that our prosperity is closely linked to a state's education levels, her budget provides no new funds for higher education or CareerTech.
“On health care, the Governor's continued refusal to accept 100 percent federal funding over the next three years to expand health care access for some 150,000 working Oklahomans and relieve the burden of uncompensated care for our health care providers is a huge missed opportunity that will undermine other efforts to make Oklahoma healthier.
In a post-speech press release, leadership staff at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, the state’s leading “think tank” advocating limited government and economic liberty, said they were “encouraged by the policy solutions she outlined,” including her recognition “that Oklahoma's costly workers' compensation system dampens our state's business climate and constricts our job market. The cost savings from reform will allow Oklahoma's private-sector employers to expand capacity and create additional job opportunities for their friends and neighbors.”
Michael Carnuccio, the OCPA president, commented, "We applaud the Governor for pointing out the positive impact tax cuts have already had on Oklahoma's economy and the opportunities they have made possible for Oklahoma families. She instinctively understands our income tax rate is still too high and puts us at a competitive disadvantage against more than one of our neighboring states."
OCPA officials also hailed Fallin’s boost to pension reform efforts led by state Rep. Randy McDaniel. The OCPA release said Fallin “realizes changes must be made to preserve the state's employee retirement program to ensure it delivers on its promises and does not become an unnecessary burden on taxpayers.”
Brian Bush, executive vice president for the group said he was “proud of Gov. Fallin for standing firm in her position that the federal health care law is unaffordable and ineffective for our state, and that policymakers should continue to opt out of the law's expansion of Medicaid.”
Bush concluded, "The more that Oklahoma policymakers stick to the concepts of limiting the size of government and unleashing the entrepreneurial spirit within our state's borders, the more opportunities Oklahoma families will have before them in the decades to come.”
Speaking of the budget, Gov. Fallin’s Finance Secretary Preston Doerflinger insisted during his briefing for journalists that there were “no tricks” in the State of the State address and accompanying budget presented to the Legislature.
He readily acknowledged there are differences between some of the governor’s priorities and those of the key legislative leaders.
Doerflinger said the governor’s tax cut proposal could be paid for with “revenue growth” that will come in somewhere between $170 million and $215 million. During his time the Capitol press corps, Doerflinger said, “this administration will never apologize for seeking tax cuts for taxpayers.”
He said the governor will not support across-the-board pay hikes for state employees, but wants a new executive branch analysis of private sector vs. government pay scales. He said it may be Fiscal Year 2015 before prospects for pay hikes are realistic.