COMMENTARY: Can the Legislature do more than one thing at a time?

OKLAHOMA CITY – Ed Kelley, long a sage observer of politics in the Sooner State, often said the state Legislature was incapable of doing more than one important thing a year. And, he cautioned, that one thing might be something bad. 

Kelley now runs The Washington Times, but he spent nearly four decades at the state’s largest newspaper, The Oklahoman. 

We were colleagues for 12 of those years, during my tenure as chief editorial writer and then editorial page editor. 

Ed covered the state Capitol for a few seasons, and Congress during the Reagan years, when he and I first overlapped, professionally. 

Seriously, enquiring minds want to know: Can the Oklahoma Legislature ever do more than one significant thing in any given session? 

At the state Capitol this fall, the Legislature’s interim study meetings are underway. 

However, arguably the most important policy challenges – water and Medicaid spending are not the subject of any public meetings. 

Right now, the formal Interim topics are getting the most time and attention of elected officials, agency heads and those reporters who are paying attention. In those meetings, legislators are discussing issues like taxes, veterans’ homes, education, pensions, Capitol Complex repairs, and the evergreen  “right-sizing” of government. 

We’ll see if recalcitrant legislators can cut taxes next year, reversing the epic fail of 2012 for Gov. Mary Fallin and the GOP House and Senate leadership.
Last spring, after pressing for methodical cuts and phased-in elimination of the levy, Republicans in charge of Oklahoma government not only failed to cut taxes, they actually increased state spending by about $320 million, by any measure a long ways from “right-sizing.”

Fallin told Stephen Moore of The Wall Street Journal she intends to get Oklahoma’s top income tax rate, now 5.25 percent, cut to 4.8 percent “or lower.”

As for right-sizing, state Rep. David Dank, an Oklahoma City Republican, is again carrying the ball to nip and tuck at business incentives worth hundreds of millions of dollars, preservation of which was a principle factor in the death of tax cuts. 

Meaningful changes in administration and staffing for the state’s troubled veterans centers do seem within reach. The tug-of-war over common education will continue, with many Republicans joining Democrats to defend the status quo or and perhaps roll back state Superintendent Janet Barresi’s accountability measures to pressure the system for improved student achievement. 

Oklahoma City GOP state Rep. Randy McDaniel, at early October hearings, will celebrate pension reforms from 2011-12 that clipped unfunded liabilities by more than $4 billion. He faces tough sledding to further reduce the still-shocking $10 Billion+ gap between obligations and resources.

A major bond issue to finance repairs at the state Capitol and other buildings could be negotiated, but many legislators want to use revenue growth for that, or reallocate from other parts of the state budget.  

All that adds up to a pretty full slate, for a legislative body where many members have trouble marching and chewing gum simultaneously, and for the governor.

If history is any guide, other than those likely improvements in care of veterans, the Legislature will disappoint. And once again, Ed will prove the prophet. 

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