‘Considering everything,’ Speaker Benge gives an ‘A’ grade

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published: 30-May-2010

In a widely reported assessment, Oklahoma Speaker of the House Chris Benge, a Tulsa Republican, described the 2010 session of the state Legislature as “very tough.”

In discussion with Capitol reporters a few minutes after adjournment on Friday (May 28), Benge said he knew all along that Senate and House deliberations would be challenging. Yet, he said, “I believe we have left the state positioned to grow and prosper in the future. We made budget cuts we had to make while still leaving in place a better system to help our economy.”

Benge was particularly upbeat about workers’ compensation system reforms  and a cluster of changes to to state education policy:  “The workers’ comp reforms will help business grow, and major education reforms will modernize and improve our education system.”

On the latter point, he said, “There are many other reforms I am proud of. The education reforms are preparing us for education in the balance of the 21st century.” Gov. Henry had signed most GOP-backed education reforms by mid-day Saturday.

Benge played a leading role in development of new energy policies, and called this year’s steps “vital,” particularly “support for alternative energy sources like wind and natural gas. We continued to make a statement that Oklahoma wants to be a leader in alternative energy.” He believes, “The state is positioned to participate in the Southwest power pool projects, on power generation, and we didn’t want to damage that.”

The session began and ended with a primary focus on budget and revenue issues: “ The budget we passed will meet health care needs in a difficult time. I still say that compared to what you see in other states we are comparatively healthy and robust.”

After laying the groundwork for moratoria on many business tax credits, the Legislature at the eleventh hour shifted toward deferments (delayed triggers for the credits) rather than outright repeal or temporary suspension. He noted that “historic buildings payments” for elements of the construction industry “were deferred for two years. We adjusted the bill (House Bill 3024) to honor payments that are already in the pipeline.”

In response to a question from CapitolBeatOK, Rep. Benge said he believed construction and building businesses were “satisfied. We didn’t want to send the wrong message. We still need to promote business development in the state.”

He was hopeful that the deferments will not trigger revenue problems for future Legislatures: “We believe there will be economic growth and that will make up the difference on the deferments.”

Near the end of his Friday meeting with reporters, Benge said, “I am fairly confident that our projects, our expectations will be borne out. And I believe the economy will grow and that will help the state.”

Concerning a House vs. Senate dispute that escalated into an argument between him and Senate President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee, Benge commented,  “Senate Bill 41 was a priority bill in the Senate.” The measure was ruled non-germane when it came to the House. A delay in deliberations resulted.

“We had a [Republican] caucus over the disagreement with the Senate on that. We took a break and had a serious discussion,”:Benge said. “I would not want to comment on my discussion with the President Pro Temp. I’ll just say that it was a disagreement in the midst of a session that could be called ugly and uglier. Many members in both houses struggled with the issues in S.B. 41. It was simply at matter of talking through it, and we did that.”

Some reporters pressed the Speaker concerning the budget process and its openness, or perceived lack thereof. Benge responded, “In this system we have 149 different legislators. Ideally, we could have a smoother ending to a four month session but I think the process worked.”

CapitolBeatOK asked if there was merit to ideas for broader open discussions among members early in legislative sessions, with more opportunities to exchange and debate ideas. While saying such an idea might be “possible,” the  Speaker pointed to the burden of committee meetings and other early-session duties, concluding, “With the way things are structured I’m not sure that would work.”

Reporters queried how near the Legislature came to facing a special session in June. He replied, “We came close a couple of times. Last week [May 17-21], there was a real impasse on the budget. I wasn’t sure we were going to be able to finish. Then today (Friday, May 28) we hit a rough spot on the disagreement with the Senate.” Benge said he grew confident “by early afternoon” members were going to finish their business by the required time, 5 p.m.

The Speaker said he did not believe Rep. Mike Reynolds’ questions and parliamentary tactics threatened to force a special session:“I didn’t think that at all.” In response to a follow-up from CapitolBeatOK, Benge reiterated: “I really didn’t think that was going to happen.”

Asked what advice he could offer Republican leader-designate Kris Steele of Shawnee, Benge said, “I believe he is prepared. He is a friend of mine and I am confident in him. The only advice I can give is to listen to the members. I know he’ll do that any way.”

Like his colleague in the Senate, Glenn Coffee, Benge disputed the notion that legislators spent too much time on “ideological” issues like abortion. He reflected, “That contention comes up every session. I point out that this is a diverse body, and a diverse ideas come to the Capitol every year, every session. We don’t put off other important issues because of the budget or other financial issues.”

He also disagreed with contentions that time devoted to such issues reflected a lack of leadership: “We passed something like 400 bills and we started out with about 2000. A lot of bills were never heard at all. Some of those assertions come because of election year tensions. I understand that. You have to understand that our members take ownership in their ideas. They believe in the issues they put forth and they work to see their ideas enacted.”

When told Governor Brad Henry had given the session a grade of B-, Benge rewarded legislators a higher mark: “I would give it an A considering everything we had to deal with, both the budget and the policy measures. We have positioned the state to grow in the future.”