Coffee content with results, and ready to exit the stage
By Patrick B. McGuigan
Glenn Coffee looked back at his tenure in state government with satisfaction and gratitude – but not with regret over leaving, he said in a Friday evening (May 28) session with reporters.
In a wide-ranging discussion with members of the Capitol press corps, a encounter punctuated with both humor and introspective commentary, the Oklahoma City Republican said he was satisfied with most results of the 2010 Legislature, happy with his tenure, and ready to leave government.
He expressed concerns about Oklahoma state government’s reliance on federal government resources, and said odds are the next Legislature will face challenges as great as this year’s did.
The Senate President Pro Tempore, wrapping up his tenure as the first Republican Senate leader in state history, expressed pride with conclusion of workers’ compensation reforms; educational “transformation” measures (including expansion of charter schools), performance pay, local empowerment in schooling, and internet-based instruction. He said negotiation of the difficult FY 2011 budget in a “challenging year” was a singular achievement.
In prepared comments, Coffee reflected, “We got a good start last year with lawsuit reform, and we are pleased with the passage of comprehensive workers’ compensation reform this year.” He said, “The theme of the Republican caucus this session was ‘jobs, jobs jobs.’” He contends that “with the reforms we enacted, we are pleased that we made that theme a reality.”
Coffee continued, “With comprehensive reform of workers’ compensation, we have created a climate that will generate more jobs, while lowering rates for business and providing better care for injured workers. And, our education reforms will increase opportunity for Oklahoma’s young people and their families, as well as raising the standards for educators.”
“We campaigned on bringing long overdue reform and fiscal responsibility to state government, and while we’re not claiming to have finished the job, we believe we got a strong start in the past two sessions,” he concluded in his prepared statement.
Concerning a wide range of new education policies and reforms that passed at the Legislature, which have already gained the governor’s signature or are widely expected to do so, Coffee said, “Last Wednesday (May 26) was as big a day in Oklahoma education reform as I’ve ever seen. I know, of course, that this is just a starting point, but it is certainly an important and gratifying one. To have been part of bringing to an end product these education reforms was very encouraging.”
In response to questions, Coffee said, “I am not endorsing a successor. I want to see someone who’s willing to work hard for the people of Oklahoma.”
He continued, “In the years I was here I watched the steady transformation of the Legislature from Democrat to Republican control. I am proud that several of those who will be serving in the Republican majority after I am gone are people I recruited. Several of those colleagues will serve for many years after I leave here.”
Concerning criticisms of budget and policy processes in the final weeks of the session, Coffee reflected, “Most items of any consequence were the product of long consultation and deliberation that included the governor, the Speaker and myself — throughout the session and in some cases for years.
“I will readily admit there were two important issues that came up at the end of the session that might have surprised some. Those were agency consolidation and the role of attorneys in our state government, that is to say, the small agency attorneys.
“In a way, that was part of the whole consolidation issue. We made an honest try to make those happen but the result was the consolidation failed and the tightening of control over agency attorneys was substantially revised. All the other issues were discussed all session long.”
Concerning highs and lows in the most challenging budget environment in modern state history, Coffee commented, “Without a doubt a high point was the ability to come together and find common ground on so many issues. Low points are that there were a number of lost opportunities. Personally, the best thing was to see the transformation that took place in the Legislature while I was here. In 10 years we went from minority, to tied, to a majority. As a result, bills began to get hearings that were always killed before.”
Responding to questions about a disagreement with House Speaker Chris Benge that slowed deliberations Friday morning, Coffee was candid: “The speaker and I have had an ongoing argument about the House ‘germaneness’ rule and application of that to Senate bills, in this case Senate Bill 41. We had a heated exchange when the bill we sought to advance was ruled ‘not germane.’ I let my temper flare, and he let his temper flare, too. I believe the argument was the result of last day pressures. In no way does that disagreement take away from my respect and friendship for Chris Benge.
“The issue was an important one. S.B. 41 was a Senate priority. We passed all House priority bills, and they passed all but one of our Senate priorities. This one related to the growing powers of county assessors. They’ve been asking a lot of questions of taxpayers that go well beyond their traditional role. We wanted to rein in questions delving into areas of personal information that the assessor doesn’t need to decide property values.”
Senator Coffee reiterated his view that the Sooner State risks becoming too reliant on federal dollars, and that a $700-800 million “hole” might exist for the 2012 budget. Coffee added, “There is a concern about leaving a hole for future years. The steps we took helped us avoid a budget hole for this year. If the economy doesn’t rebound, all of this could still have implications for 2013, 2014 and 2015.” The latter comment referenced the imperfect nature of budget cuts, and inadequate “enhancements” to anticipate future needs.
Concerning terms limits and the mandated end of his tenure, Coffee said, “I am ready to go. I read something the other day about the number of ‘mornings’ or ‘sunrises’ a person has in their life. That is, chances to wake up, see the sun, and decide what to do with work, family and other concerns that day. I figure I have about 10,000 mornings left. I’m really ready to go on to something new.”
CapitolBeatOK referenced a comment by Governor Brad Henry on Friday afternoon. The Democratic governor, also leaving office, said he was “wistful” about his last session. Coffee’s view was, “This has been fun, and it’s nice to look back and reminisce about what has been achieved. But it’s time for somebody else to do this job.
“I can say I’m a junky for this stuff. I love the game, I am into policy, and I love the people with whom I’ve worked. I don’t feel hard to replace. I am happy to move on to a new phase of life.”
While Governor Henry gave the 2010 session a “B-” grade, Coffee assigned a straight “B.” House Speaker Benge assigned a letter grade of “A.”
As for the governor himself, Coffee said, “He has been excellent to work with. We often disagree but he managed to disagree without being disagreeable. I like him and enjoyed working with him.”
Coffee deflected arguments that this year’s session devoted too much energy to ideological or non-budget issues.
“Some of the things we dealt with might seem like extracurricular issues to outsiders,” he said. “But those issues are important to voters, and voters elect us. We represent them. Getting the budget done on time, and devoting time to the budget, does not change the issues or the views voters have about the importance of those other issues.
“Many point to the efforts to overturn the governor’s vetoes on abortion issues. We found we had plenty of time even in the Legislature’s final week to do the budget yet still deal with the important issues that so many voters care about.”
He rejected one reporter’s premise the final five days “looked like total chaos.” Coffee countered, “I would disagree. I remember other years when we were waiting on the ‘deal’ in the last day or two of session, not getting into it over the last couple of weeks when there was still time to really consider the details. This year I thought we had a good process.”
CapitolBeatOK asked Coffee to assess the press corps. He chuckled and replied, “In my experience the press has always been fair, especially the reporters [at the Capitol]. You guys have a lot of knowledge and you know details. That might not be true of other reporters away from the Capitol. You reported information and drew your own conclusions. This press corps was fair. There was one time things got a little tough for me but I got through it. I believe my views, my responses on issues, were accurately reported.”
A great deal of scrutiny in the final days of the 2010 session was devoted to the role of state Rep. Mike Reynolds of Oklahoma City. Asked if Reynolds slowed down the legislative process, Coffee responded:
“Of course he did. He had frustrations and things he was seriously concerned about, and he worked to bring those concerns out. Mike firmly believes in everything he said. I actually get along well with Rep. Reynolds, and have worked with him on some issues. He might fight on too many things, but he honestly believes in what he did.”
Looking to the upcoming election season, Coffee said, “I think this will be a strong year for Republicans. It’s the kind of year that I think any thing can happen in nearly any district. You wouldn’t normally expect to see a Republican have a chance in Ken Corn’s [Senate] district [in southeast Oklahoma], but maybe that will change this year.”
In response to a question from CapitolBeatOK, Coffee said, “I expect Republicans to make important gains in statewide races this year.:
Concerning a potential return to government, perhaps in an appointed post, he said, “I’m not looking for that. But I would never rule out any opportunities. I’ll look at possibilities as they come along.”