Ken Miller reflects on tough budget years, looks to Treasurer’s race

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published: 17-May-2010

It’s no surprise that in the final days of this 2010 legislative session, the priority for state Rep. Ken Miller, chairman of the House Appropriations and Budget Committee, is “getting a budget agreement done and signed by the governor. If history is any guide, we’ll get it done. Despite all the stress, we are working together to go down that path.”

In a recent interview with CapitolBeatOK, Miller said, “The scope of responsibility and focus for a budget and appropriations committee chairmen is broad in scope. That work is enough to take all of my time and focus and a considerable amount of my energy. I must devote the bulk of my energy to focus on just these issues in order to accomplish that responsibility.

“What has made this so challenging is that it is highly unusual to do two budgets in the same year. With the revenue challenges that came, we essentially had to go through two budgets this year. To put an exact point on it, the Legislature had to redo fiscal year 2010, as you know, then we had to tackle the FY 2011 issues.”

His biggest challenge at the state Capitol has “clearly been this revenue gap in the last two years. It’s been quite remarkable to have to wipe out 15% of state spending. We’ve done 7½% and 7% already [NOTE: 7 1/2 % in the original FY 2010 budget, and an additional 7% in the revised FY 2010 budget]. We have to meet or exceed that amount this time. If you incorporate the stimulus and rainy day money, we’ve already done the 15% and we’d seeking another five to 10% in FY 2011.

“So, we will have already wiped out about 20% and a little more, of the state dollars we’ve appropriated over two fiscal years. That is a simply extraordinary event.”

Miller was elected to the Legislature in 2004. After a year as vice chairman of the Budget panel in 2006, Miller took the reins as chairman in 2007. He is completing his third session as head of the panel. He also teaches economics at Oklahoma Christian University.

“Let me put it a different way. There is good economic policy, and there’s good politics.  Good policy should be good politics, but not everyone seems to agree with me about that.”

Asked to name encouraging or enjoyable things about legislative work, Miller reflected, “Without a doubt, being able to leave something better than you found it is incredibly rewarding. I am an educator, and in that work it is always my hope, my reward, to take a student’s mind and make it better.  I compare this to the legislative work, as well. To take a public policy area or the problems that my constituents have and make it better or the best possible, this is the thing about the job that gives me satisfaction.”

Miller continued, “I am concerned that often government sacrifices long-term economic health for a short-term solution or ‘fix.’ Too often things here at the Capitol and in the Legislature are looked at in a 2-year cycle and not in the long-term. I believe it is always foolish to sacrifice the long-term good for short-term satisfaction.”

In our interview, Rep. Miller discussed the recent debate over tax credits and exemptions, as well as the recent debates over a hospital provider tax or fee. That discussion is covered in a separate CapitolBeatOK story.

With a primary contest against former state Sen. Owen Laughlin looming as the two men seek the for Republican nomination for Treasurer, CapitolBeatOK asked Miller: “Why you and not the other guy?”

Miller said, “I have to say I like my opponent, and I love his family the more I see them on the campaign trail at some events.”

Miller stressed, “I’ve been emphasizing a pretty direct message. In politics, you want to have the right people for the right jobs at the right times. I think this is the right time. My experience has prepared me to be the right person for this particular job at this particular time.”

He continued, “I started out in banking, in the private sector, and have had a mix of private and public experience since then. The main difference between me and my opponent is that I interviewed for my first job. In his case, his parents gave him the job. My opponent is an attorney. I am not. Of the two of us, I am the more qualified person to be treasurer; he is the more qualified person to be attorney general.”

Asked if it was true that incumbent Treasurer Scott Meacham, a Democrat, encouraged him to seek the job, Miller replied, “To paraphrase what he said when he called me on this last year, when he decided not to seek reelection: ‘I don’t believe this is a partisan position, so I don’t take a partisan attitude toward who should be in the job.’ Scott told me, ‘If you hear a rumor that you are running, well, I started it. I’m not running for reelection. I encourage you to run.’

Miller remembers, “I told him it might seem odd for a Democrat to be encouraging a Republican to run. I asked him about that. He said, ‘I do not want the best Democrat in the job, I want the best qualified Oklahoman.’ I appreciate what he said, and I welcome his support.”

Critiquing his primary foe, Miller said, “There are some things my primary opponent has said … that he did not address when he was here [in the Legislature]. … He made a point of talking in his interview with you about vehicle fleet management issues that raised concerns in a 2003 study, but the fleet management bills to reform that have been implemented. When he talks about one-fourth of the state credit card transactions not having adequate oversight, the issues he raised are no longer valid – they are posted on because of my and state Rep. Jason Murphey’s work.”

“I don’t think [Laughlin] was intentionally misleading. I do think he is dangerously unaware of what has transpired since he left the Legislature in 2008. He has said he had reform ideas when he was in the Legislature, but couldn’t get hearings for his ideas.

“He introduced 54 bills in his 12 years in the Senate, but none of them had anything to do with waste, fraud and abuse issues. He did not address purchasing issues, Department of Central Services issues, and did nothing on transparency.”

He concluded, “We both have track records. I’ve achieved more in my time – my six years here and involvement in other ways before my election — than he did in his 12 years at the Legislature. First, much of what he claims is inaccurate and cannot be verified by the auditor’s office to which he credits the information. Secondly, if it was or is accurate, then there is no excuse not have made an effort, even in the legislative minority, to address the issues he raises now.”

Miller contends, “I have a track record, a list of things I did accomplish while in the Legislature. I have worked for caps on spending and other points my opponent raises as if they are his ideas.” Rep. Miller has some 300 bills sponsored or co-sponsored during his tenure, about 90% of them dealing with financial affairs. That could reach about 350 by session’s end.

As for the merits of his candidacy, Miller asserts, “When I first entered public service as chairman of the Legislative Compensation Board, I pressed for a 10-year freeze on legislative salaries. I have continued to build on that track record. I worked for the cap on spending. I authored the first bill to implement the recommendations of the IBM report my opponent emphasized so much in his interview.  I authored the bill to cut state spending by the largest amounts in state history.”

Miller concluded, “I believe voters can best trust me to administer those $10 billion in state assets, rather than my opponent, because my actions match my campaign message – his do not.”