ANALYSIS: OK House Speaker Jeff Hickman steers conservative course

OKLAHOMA CITY — When Rep. T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, decided to run for the U.S. Senate, he remained in the state House but vacated the speakership.

Rep. Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview, took his place in the lower legislative chamber’s top job. While some thought, or hoped, he might moderate the Republican caucus, Hickman has steered a variety of Republican agenda items through the legislative process.

On matters ranging from substantive policies to House procedures, Hickman is crafting a strongly conservative path.

Arguably the biggest news at the Capitol so far this year is the move to repeal the Common Core curriculum in Oklahoma.

House Bill 3399, sponsored by Hickman, explicitly shifts the state away from the controversial standards and testing that have become a lightning rod for opposition across the political spectrum. He has stuck to the repeal path in the face of push a back from the state Chamber of Commerce.

Additionally, Hickman reached out to state Rep. Mike Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City, leading critic of recent House speakers. After several years without a chairmanship and now in his last legislative session, Reynolds has spent the past month and a half as chairman of the Government Modernization and Accountability Committee.

From that perch, Reynolds, sometimes described as the most conservative GOP legislator, has jabbed at University of Oklahoma officials for holding on to art works that apparently were stolen by Nazis in the 1930s from a German Jewish family.

Reynolds also has aggressively scrutinized private funding to match proposed state spending of $40 million to finish the American Indian Cultural Center on the Oklahoma River, revealing this week that $16 million of the funds, categorized as private, actually came from Oklahoma City and county tax revenues. 
Hickman has supported modest income tax reduction, but went along with a two-year delay in the effective date of the legislation. When that measure sailed to passage, Hickman said the House would “drive conservative policies that promote responsible government and encourage an economically prosperous environment.”

He is also advocating a one percent cut in the state corporate income tax, and has taken that proposal to the verge of enactment.

The new speaker has pressed for the new pension reforms sponsored by state Rep. Randy McDaniel, R-Oklahoma City, in the face of fierce opposition from public employee groups and teacher unions. On the other hand, he has been sympathetic to some pay increases for “high hazard” government employees.

Hickman has supported Gov. Mary Fallin’s proposal to allow local school districts to incur additional bond indebtedness to finance storm shelters, with voter approval. He also wants voters statewide to decide if state Capitol repairs should be financed with a special bond.

Hickman has also pushed for a state constitutional ban on the oft-criticized “revolving door” in state government, imposing a time bar between legislative service and subsequent state employment.

One of his first moves was to ask members to abolish the Calendar Committee, which veteran state Rep. David Dank, R-Oklahoma City, characterized as a “nuisance layer” in the legislative process. After some contentious debate, only nine House members disagreed with Hickman’s recommendation.

In another early leadership shift, Hickman designated state Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, his deputy floor leader. Nelson and state Rep. Gus Blackwell, R-Laverne, have guided the Common Core repeal in the House.

Speaker Hickman frequently makes himself available to answer questions from reporters at length, often engaging in dialogue about policy developments. 

His predecessor, former House Speaker T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, rarely responded to policy questions in depth and on many issues gave the same answers throughout his 13 months in the top job.

The final weeks of the legislative session will present Hickman and his colleagues in the state’s “Big Three” – Gov. Mary Fallin and Senate President Pro Temp Brian Bingman – with difficult budget choices. As that timing for choosing nears, the speaker has positioned himself as the most conservative player in the troika.

To sum up, Speaker Hickman is on top of his game. Thus far, he is leading the frequently contentious lower chamber with a deft, and conservative, hand.

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