Pam Peterson reflects on life lessons and public office

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published: 05-Feb-2010

State Rep. Pam Peterson, chairman of the House Human Services Committee, has been in legislature since early 2004. A native of New York, she came to Tulsa to attend school at Oral Roberts University, where she met the man she eventually married.

When this reporter arrived to interview Peterson in her Capitol office, a woman who has worked for many years at the Department of Human Services was just leaving. That visitor spent a few minutes describing how grateful she was for work the Republican did awhile back on child support enforcement issues.

When the visitor departed, Peterson was asked about the matter she had mentioned. Peterson explained, “We worked on a child support enforcement mechanism, to create a court liaison program statewide. The problem in those situations is not always the father, but that is common.

“In situations where the non-custodial parent is headed for jail, the possibility exists that a child and the custodial parent will lose their means of support. The system I helped create by working with others is somewhat like a drug court, in providing an alternative to jail but with strict judicial and professional supervision.

“It’s not an unaccountable system, but one where the person providing support is diverted from imprisonment. They are accountable to a caseworker to keep on track with employment, and to have that money go to support their child as a priority.

“Often the people this program works with have no high school education. The diversion from incarceration is allowed if there is a chance that services will fix or address the issue of support. In some cases, a judge watches the situation for a year or 14 months. If they do what they’re supposed to, the program can continue and the person can avoid jail. But if they renege, they have to serve time.

“It’s the job of the case worker to affirm compliance. If that is not forthcoming, if the parent is not on his or her way to paying or actually paying child support, the judge can put them behind bars. The program allows time to build work habits, and a chance for the non-custodial parent, if the court approves, to establish a relationship. In some cases it’s as simple as the child being aware that the non-custodial parent cares enough that they are paying some support.

“This program has had an impact in rescuing quite a few lives. It is making a difference. I’ve not looked at the statistics lately but a study of Muskogee and Oklahoma counties, and one other county, found the program we helped develop had brought in $3 million in child support that otherwise would have been lost. Judges are now looking at this as a broader option.”

Rep. Peterson is well known for work she does on pro-life issues. At Rose Day activities on Wednesday (Feb. 3) of the first week in the 2010 legislative session, two of the six bills activists highlighted were Peterson’s proposals.

One is House Bill 3110, aimed at “protecting freedom of conscience for health care professionals. It affirms that freedom of choice should not mean forcing health care professionals to to be complicit in an act they consider killing.”

Another measure, House Bill 3284 “is an abortion reporting bill. It will focus on reporting the reasons for abortions, in order to understand the  abortion process and to help keep it ‘rare,’ as some advocates of abortion claim they want. The only way to make it rare is to understand why women feel they must seek an abortion, and to do our best to address those circumstances.”

The plethora of new measures limiting abortion comes in the context of a controversial judicial ruling saying that a measure enacted law year had violated the “single subject” rule for state laws. Peterson, critical of the ruling, notes, “The judge did not rule on the content of the bills,  so pro-lifers are hopeful it can be restored on basis of breaking each of the parts out as a single bill. Lots of Democrats supported the original bill. It is not partisan and in fact was/is a hugely bipartisan issue. Passage of the six bills will lead to better policies and programs,” in Peterson’s view. “These are pro-woman bills.”

Peterson has expressed specific and practical concerns about the implementation of allocation cuts during the current state revenue crisis. She told CapitolBeatOK, “I am concerned about the loss of some important ‘boots on the ground’ services. There are FTEs (full time equivalent employee positions) getting filled at some agencies, some in administrative areas, while direct services are getting cut. I believe the waste comes at and from the top in many of the agencies, and that’s where cuts that bring real savings should be made first.”

Peterson continues, “I’d like to see better and more explicit legislative direction given in these situations. Although there are problems, or at least concerns, of the Legislature intruding on executive functions, I believe we can and should do a better of giving agencies direction on what the Legislature finds important. I hope we can end duplication of services and rein in cuts of essential services.”

Another Peterson proposal, House Bill 3043, exempts school districts from certain textbook purchase requirements: “I think it is an issue of common sense and also an issue of local control.”

Peterson has served since 2004: “I won the seat that had been held by Hopper Smith; I took the seat when he was deployed in the war.”

Asked what lessons she has learned since then, she paused briefly and replied, “The lessons are humbling. I’ve learned that things are not as black and white as I thought. One of the secrets to advancing things in the Legislature is to build relationships and to listen to both sides. Part of the job is to seek ties and relations with those on both sides on the aisle. Doing this is very helpful to getting an agenda of substantive bills through the process.

“I’ve learned there’s a certain slowness in government, that you can’t get stuff through quickly, at least most of the time. I spent a couple of sessions being very idealistic, and after a lot of thought I realized that things don’t always turn out that way. I’ve learned that a lot of good people with good ideas are not heard because they have trouble working with others, and that it is terribly important to your success in a legislative body to simply be able to work well with other people.”

As for the most disappointing things she’s learned in public life, the answer came more quickly: “Sometimes in politics, as in life in general, people let you down or disappoint you. Not everyone you encounter is trustworthy. There is an old saying that the good thing about politics is the people, and the bad thing about politics is the people.

“I must say that I love my job. You are able to help people and to make a difference. Sometimes it’s as simple as getting them to the right person in an agency or in government or even in the private sector.

“I got a wonderful letter just a few days ago from a man thanking me for work I’d done in January 2006 to help him when he was having problems. Everyone had passed the buck and he seemed stuck in the bureaucracy. I asked questions and encouraged people to work with him, and it got resolved. When the bad weather came at Christmas time, he remembered me and wrote the most wonderful letter.”

When CapitolBeatOK turned briefly to 2010 elections, Peterson said, “It’s the peoples’ seat, so I am determined to do the best job I can, and and I’m prepared for a campaign for reelection if an opponent files.”