Throughout his career as Oklahoma's chief executive officer, Gov. Brad Henry has built a reputation as a voice for bipartisanship. He reiterated his standing call for cooperation between the two parties in this year's State of the State address when he appealed to the evenly split Senate to put politics aside in order to be about the people's business.
"There are some skeptics who predict little of worth will come from this legislative session. They expect to see only political gamesmanship and partisan bickering," he said.
"Divisiveness destroys success, and too much is at stake for us to surrender to the pitfalls of partisanship. There is no glory in gridlock, but the rewards of working together--of joining forces on behalf of our fellow Oklahomans--are truly without limit."
Some might find it ironic now that, despite the fact that the Senate has indeed heeded his call to bipartisan cooperation by coming to unanimous agreement on the state budget along with House leadership, Henry is sending the Legislature back to square one by vetoing it.
Last year, Capitol-watchers might recall, the threat of special session loomed over the Legislature as the Democrat-controlled Senate and the Republican-controlled House were deadlocked over the budget throughout the four months of regular session, with no agreement in sight as the Sine Die deadline fast approached.
In mid-May, though, a scant two weeks before the close of regular session and to the ire of Democratic leaders in the Senate, Henry announced a budget agreement he had reached with then-House Speaker Todd Hiett, R-Kellyville, without including the leader of the other half of the Legislature, Senate President Pro Tempore Mike Morgan, in the loop.
Morgan, D-Stillwater, rejected the proposal, which was somewhat heavier on Republican-favored income tax reductions than Democrats wanted--one of the major sticking points contributing to the gridlock in the first place.
Morgan called Henry's move a "political game" and "a ploy to get elected."
Oklahomans might remember the oft-repeated phrase "Henry-Hiett budget agreement" from both the governor and the Speaker's election advertisements last year when each touted his bipartisan leadership acumen in their respective bids for the state's governor and lieutenant governor seats.
The Legislature finally reached a budget agreement during June's three-day special session. Not everyone was happy with the way it went down, though.
Rep. Richard Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City, among a handful of others, could easily be found in the Capitol rotunda during that time, holding impromptu press conferences with any member of the Capitol press corps he could find in passing.
He criticized the "closed door" process in which leaders of the two legislative houses held informal, unscheduled meetings in a flurry of back-and-forth communication between offices in a rushed effort to accomplish in the three days of special session what they couldn't manage in the four months of regular session, so as to prevent the "shut down of government services" each side publicly blamed the other for risking by their unwillingness to compromise.
"They say 'agreements have been made on the budget,' but they haven't made any agreements with me," Morrissette told reporters. "My district is just as important as the Speaker's or any others but I'm getting steamrolled like a bug in this process."
Rep. Paul Wesselhoft, R-Moore, also wasn't happy with the process, but had a more circumspect take on it.
"Theoretically, Morrissette is correct but pragmatically, it will never happen. When you're negotiating a budget between three competing interests--the Governor, the House and the Senate--you have to delegate authority because there's no way all of us could sit in a room and get this done," he said.
Wesselhoft's main beef was that it took a special session to reach a budget agreement in the first place.
The three days of frantic negotiating, compromising, legislating and press-conference-holding finally produced a budget with hours to spare, and the government didn't shut down.
The election is also now long past, resulting in Henry retaining his seat, Hiett losing the lite-gov race, House Republicans losing seats but retaining their majority, and a first-time-in-state-history Senate split 24-24 between Dems and Reps.
With the Governor, a Democrat, on one side, the Republican-controlled House on the other, and an evenly split Senate in the fulcrum, many commentators didn't expect anything of consequence to happen this year, hence the Governor's appeal for bipartisanship on the first day of session.
To the surprise of many (not least of whom was Henry, apparently), the evenly split Senate pulled off another historical landmark by reaching the earliest budget agreement in 35 years, and it was an agreement House leadership happily accepted as well.
It passed the Senate 48-0 without debate and the House 84-16.
"I never had a doubt that we would reach an agreement on the budget and that our power-sharing agreement would work," said Morgan when the agreement was announced. "(Senate Co-President Pro Tempore Glenn) Coffee and Speaker (Lance) Cargill (R-Harrah) deserve a lot of credit, too. Nobody got everything they wanted, but together we addressed each other's interests.
"Our negotiations were never about scoring political points. We balanced our different fiscal philosophies and remained focused on crafting the best budget for the people of Oklahoma," he added.
Anybody Need the Governor?
And all of this happened in the absence of the Governor's renowned bipartisan leadership, to boot. His input didn't factor into the negotiations because he was out of state on Spring Break vacation with his family at the time.
State Treasurer Scott Meacham, the Governor's chief budget negotiator, publicly criticized the budget in Henry's stead, though. His objections were many, not least of which was that it did not include his or the Governor's input.
"I've never seen anything like this before, where a deal just sort of emerged from the back room and then passed both bodies of the Legislature within a week," he said.
Along with enumerating various flaws he believed the budget agreement contained, Meacham said the majority of it should be vetoed.
Naturally, legislative leaders disagreed.
"We remain confident that when the Governor returns from his Spring Break vacation and personally analyzes the general appropriations bill that passed the Senate 48 to 0, he will like what he sees," said Coffee.
"Many legislators are growing increasingly concerned that Governor Henry's incessant whining may be an attempt to undo the renewed spirit of bipartisan cooperation that we in the Legislature have worked so hard to establish this year," he added.
Henry's spokesman, Paul Sund, called Coffee's comment about the Governor's vacation a "cheap shot."
"The Governor is keeping a long-standing family commitment to his children, just as are many parents this week," he said.
Coffee--who, along with the rest of the state government, apparently does not have such a long-standing family commitment to Spring Break vacation--found that his confidence was misplaced.
Henry echoed Meacham's criticisms of the budget, along with those of House Minority Leader Danny Morgan, D-Prague, before vetoing the majority of it.
"I'm disappointed that legislative leaders chose to exclude my office and a majority of lawmakers from the private discussions that led to their budget agreement," said the Governor.
"I've found the appropriations process works in a much more efficient and effective manner when the executive and legislative branches work together to develop a budget, just as we have in previous years during my tenure as governor," he added.
However, with Henry's contribution to last year's budget negotiations in view, Tulsa's Sen. Tom Adelson, a Democrat, said, "There certainly isn't an intention to exclude the Governor from negotiations, but for him to talk about loyalty and cooperation is a lot like Paris Hilton talking about chastity--I think he protests too much."
Adelson also said he had been under the impression from Senate leadership that Meacham was, in fact, involved in this year's budget negotiations.
"Our leadership tells us his chief negotiator was present," he said.
While the Democrat from Tulsa was also among numerous state lawmakers who were not on Spring Break vacation at the time, Adelson said the attention Henry's trip has been getting is "a tempest in a teapot."
"I don't think it's fair to begrudge the Governor his vacation," he said, but added, "There are a lot of people in the Legislature who think it would be a good example of leadership if the Governor were here for the four months of session along with the rest of us."
Also, Cargill's spokesman, Damon Gardenhire, said that, while the Speaker also does not begrudge the Governor his vacation, he and other leaders did not purposefully exclude Henry from discussions.
In fact, Gardenhire said, the Speaker had expressly invited the Governor to attend regularly scheduled weekly meetings with himself and other legislative leaders, but Henry declined, instead preferring to meet "on an ad hoc basis."
"If you look at what his predecessors did--governors going back to David Boren have had these meetings," said Gardenhire.
The Speaker's office isn't the only party that thinks Henry's way of doing business is a break from tradition.
"Brad Henry is the single laziest governor we've ever had," said Frosty Troy, founding editor of the Oklahoma Observer, Pulitzer nominee and long-time fixture within the Capitol press corps.
Troy, who's covered seven governors during his nearly 50 years of reporting on the state Capitol, said Henry's typical pattern during his five years in office is to keep a low profile during session, if he's present at all, and then show up at the end to take credit for many of the more popular pieces of legislation.
"He shows up late at the Capitol and keeps pretty much a social calendar," said Troy.
"This year, he's had two news conferences in two months, and they've been dog and pony shows," he added.
Troy said the single hardest-working governor he's known was Democrat Howard Edmondson (1959-1963), while the single most successful was Republic Henry Bellmon (who served two inconsecutive terms from 1963-1967 and 1987-1991).
"As far as being lazy, it's a Brad Henry-thing," he said.
"Don't misunderstand me--I had a front page endorsing him," Troy qualified. "Anybody but Is-crook," he added.
The veteran newsman commented that Henry "stabbed the Dems in the back" with his budget deal with Hiett last year and also faulted him for being gone this year for what "is really the most crucial week of the session."
Troy added, though, that he credits Henry with the leadership he displayed in dealing with the 2003 budget shortfall, and with one other saving grace: "He's not ever lied to the press--not once."
After a war of press statements leading up to Henry's veto of the budget--with Henry and the 44 House Democrats on one side of the battle line and the rest of the Legislature on the other, the Governor has renewed his call for bipartisan cooperation as he sends the Legislature back to the drawing board for another go at a budget agreement.
"I ask legislative leaders to put aside the political rhetoric and look on this as an opportunity to work together in a true bipartisan fashion," he said in a recent statement.
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