From the state capitol beat, Oklahoma’s Top 10 public policy stories

OKLAHOMA CITY – When all 77 counties in the Sooner State supported Mitt Romney against Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election, Oklahoma reinforced its reputation as “reddest of the red states.” The past year’s events included many developments likely to sustain that short hand description.

From the state capitol to the worldwide Web, here are the top 10 state policy stories for 2013. Elections matter, and the eternal significance of victors’ determination (or unwilllingness) to act on campaign promises was illustrated anew, in the year that was.

Against expectations of the pundit class, in first place is the continued determination of Oklahoma’s leaders to oppose Medicaid expansion as envisioned in the federal Affordable Care Act (ACA). After briefly flirting with the idea early in her tenure, Gov. Mary Fallin has repeatedly rebuffed it.

In doing so, she has strong support from other statewide elected officials and the Republican legislative leadership.

Regional Haze and everything about it comes in a close second. State Attorney General Scott Pruitt has intensified state opposition to regulations mandated by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, strictures he deems more aesthetic than substantive. Debate continues in the courts and among utility leaders, but many say fuel-switching (from coal to natural gas) would result in higher electric bills in much of the state.

The issue is complex, and Pruitt is attentive to his critics on this issue, but the bottom line is the state leadership remains aligned with those fighting, in-state and nationally, a dramatic expansion of federal power.  

If memory serves, the first research paper state policy analyst Brandon Dutcher of Edmond wrote in 1993 (when he went to work for the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, where he is now senior vice president) encouraged creation of an administrative workers compensation system, to replace a litigation-centered structure. The state Legislature enacted such a proposal last spring, and Fallin signed it into law. 

Whether or not pals call it the Dutcher Plan, insurance analysts predict major savings for business. That makes work comp reform the third top policy story of the year for Oklahoma. 

Government and especially private sector responses to Oklahoma’s spring tornadoes garner the fourth place listing for 2013. The Legislature moved with uncharacteristic speed to authorize an enhanced state role in recovery, and President Barack Obama visited to lend a hand. More notable, however, was the overwhelming and often heroic response of private groups like the Southern Baptist Relief teams, the Chabad Jewish Community Center and thousands of individuals (including major gifts from superstar Kevin Durant and other members of the Oklahoma City Thunder basketball team). Taken as a whole, volunteer response to the tornado turmoil illustrated the much-vaunted Oklahoma Standard lives on.

Oklahoma’s Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust wants to ban e-cigarettes and other “personal vaporizers” on public property, and is using its multi-million dollar budget and grant-making to push that agenda through local ordinances. Debate over the push to equate vapor with tobacco – and Gov. Mary Fallin’s fizzled push to allow local smoking bans earn the sixth place designation. To some of us, TSET’s behavior looks like bribery. Now that Fallin has moved to ban all e-cigarettes on state government property, the issue takes on even more saliency. 

In sixth place, the war over Oklahoma School Superintendent Janet Barresi’s A-F school grades, education accountability and the furious debate over the Common Core curriculum. On the latter, Barresi faces continued tension from her Republican base, despite Gov. Mary Fallin’s efforts to tamp down grass roots conservative concerns. Closely related to the battles, survival (so far) of the state’s two modest school choice programs illustrate the central importance of education policy in the governance of Oklahoma.

The federal government shutdown, if that’s the right term for the slowing of federal cash flow into state coffers and the furlough of a tiny minority of workers, was not nearly the debacle many feared. Taken together, the shutdown and the debacle surrounding implementation of the Affordable Care Act – which took on aspects of Greek tragedy right after the shutdown was resolved — were the state’s seventh most significant policy story in 2013

Eighth: The state’s leading free-market think tank, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA) marked its twentieth year in 2013. In the modern era, no policy organization has impacted the state policy landscape more than the group Dr. David Brown – also a founder of the Heritage Foundation in Washington D.C. – established when Bill Clinton was president of the United States. 

The 2013 special legislation session was both consequential and a model of efficiency, and that is the ninth top story. Agree or disagree with reenactment of the lawsuit reforms first enacted in 2009, but stricken by the state Supreme Court in June, undeniably legislators moved crisply through 23 bills in the summer session. Nineteen secured super-majorities (meaning they went into effect immediately upon the governor’s signature). And now, the reforms are firmly in place. 

In tenth place, the Oklahoma judiciary’s impact on development of public policy was rarely more dramatically illustrated than in back-to-back state Supreme Court rulings this month. One day the justice upheld the workers’ comp reforms passed last spring (see above); the next they slapped down the small income tax cut scheduled to take place in 2015.

Honorable mention: Mary Fallin is growing government. In her first three years in office, Fallin signed into law legislationincreasing state spending by some $800 million; and the total seems certain to pass $1 billion in the next few months. 

Finally, honorable mention also goes to “Remember the Titans” — the passing from this life of two state leaders. 

The late Leland Gourley, the state’s senior newspaper publisher at the time of his death in October, described Brenda Reneau as the best labor commissioner in Oklahoma history. When he wrote that seven years ago, it was one Sooner Titan commenting on another. Gov. Fallin, in a letter to Reneau’s family, said right to work would never have come to the Sooner State without the diminutive three-term public servant, the first woman and first Republican elected to the labor job.

The rarest of politicians, like President James K. Polk (a one-term Democratic president before the Civil War) she fulfilled every campaign promise, governed without scandal, and impacted history.

After losing narrowly in 2006, Reneau lived quietly in west Oklahoma City, dying in her sleep on Dec. 5, 2013. She made a difference, and not many do. 
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