State representatives mull the year past and look to opportunities for the next session
The fun is over for another year and the cast of characters who represent citizens as government in the Oklahoma Senate and House of Representatives are about to start their summer vacations from legislating.
By the reckoning of most of the handful of Tulsa-area lawmakers we asked, the state Legislature earned a solid 'B' grade for its efforts during the 2008 session.
Indeed, Senate Co-President Pro Tempore Glenn Coffee issued a statement last week to that effect. "2008 was a good legislative session, but not a great one," said the Oklahoma City Republican in explanation.
All things considered, Rep. Lucky Lamons, D-Tulsa, among others, agreed.
"I'd give it a solid 'B.' It gets better, as I start to think about what all we did," he said.
When asked why he didn't give an 'A,' Lamons said, "We started off very rocky."
The lawmaker recalled the tax faux pas that plagued the House of Representatives in the early weeks of session, which eventually led to Speaker Lance Cargill, R-Harrah, resigning from the leadership position, being replaced by Tulsa's soft-spoken but highly-regarded Rep. Chris Benge (see "New Man of the House" in the Feb. 7-13 issue of UTW at urbantulsa.com for full details).
That, according to Lamons, was one of the best developments to come out of the session.
"I think, personally, having Chris Benge elected as the Speaker of the House, for Tulsa, is the best thing that happened," he said.
"I'd say that's an 'A'... No, that's an 'A-plus,'" he added.
As Speaker, Benge "brought a calmness" and "a more moderate approach to policy" than previous House leadership, Lamons explained.
"He was more on policy and less on politics. He met frequently with the minority leader . . . " he added, crediting Benge with the early agreement the House, Senate and Governor reached on the budget.
But, that smooth, bipartisan budget process only came after another controversy came on the heels of the tax debacle.
That out-of-the-gates controversy eventually died down after Benge's election, "Then, we go rocking along and we had the incident with Representative Kern that brought national attention to the state House," Lamons said, recalling the infamous YouTube video with an excerpt of the Oklahoma City Republican's speech regarding "the homosexual agenda" and it being "a greater threat than terrorism," among other eyebrow-raising remarks.
"I thought that that brought some undue attention to the state House," Lamons said.
"I defend her right to say what she feels she has to say, but that was more of a distraction for those two weeks than anything else. I mean, you had the rallies going on, both pro and con, and it just added another diversion to the legislative session that we didn't need," he added.
"Then when that calmed down and we started to get to business, we started to get the groove on and we had an early, bipartisan budget that was agreed upon by the House and Senate and the Governor, and that was a plus," he added.
"That's a major thing that we must do--the budget. Everything else is extra," Lamons said.
Money Matters, Plus
Of course, the uncharacteristic ease of the budget process had as much to do with the state's coffers as it did with the quality of the state's leadership, since a $114 million revenue shortfall took away much of the legislative and executive branches' room to negotiate or argue.
Sen. Randy Brogdon, R-Owasso, also saw the budget agreement as a positive factor in his somewhat-concurring grade of 'B-minus/C-plus.'
"We were successful in the sense that we had a flat budget and were able to get out of the session without starting any new programs," he told UTW.
Of course, not everyone shared his positive appraisal of the standstill budget.
"I am a little saddened that state employees went another year without a raise," said Lamons.
"This is their third year in a row without a cost of living raise. But, we were looking at a $2,700, across-the-board raise, but that would have been $111 million, and we just didn't have the money this year with that $114 million shortfall," he explained.
Tulsa Democrat Sen. Tom Adelson didn't take too kindly to the standstill budget, either.
"It was difficult to not raise the level of funding to make sure that current services were maintained at the level people are accustomed to," he told UTW.
"I think that was the great concern that's on everybody's mind: our needs are growing perhaps faster than state revenues--so next year, I think that we could see another difficult year in terms of having adequate funding for infrastructure needs, for our health care needs, for our common ed and higher education needs," Adelson added.
Adelson wouldn't venture a letter grade to sum up the session, though, stating, "I don't know how to put grades on things like this."
However, he echoed many of his colleagues by pointing to the late session agreement to a $300 million bond package for roads and bridges as the best outcome of the session.
"I think having an agreement on roads and bridges is very important. I'd rank that at the top," Adelson said.
The infrastructure plan removes a previously required 3 percent growth in the state economy to trigger the investment, and it raised the cap on road funding to a maximum deposit of $30 million per year.
Lamons again credited Benge's election as Speaker for Tulsa's share of that package.
"With the Speaker of the House being from Tulsa, a $25 million project that's going to assist northeast Oklahoma and Tulsa was part of the bond issue," he said.
Brogdon, though, was less than enthusiastic about the development. He said he has "mixed feelings" about the road funding bond package.
"I voted for it, but I would have preferred to wait until next year when we could have raised the caps without having to raise money to do so," he said.
"I know that we needed it," he added.
Brogdon said the state is about to finish paying off about $40 million in bond debt from 1998, which frees up a lot of money for the debt service for roads.
In explanation of his 'C-plus/B-minus'-grade for the session, he said, "This was not just a landmark bill for outstanding legislation, to be honest with you."
But, he said there were a few bright spots, specifically naming the controversial pro-life legislation that withstood the Governor's veto pen, requiring that women undergo ultrasounds and be shown the image before an abortion (see "Who's Life Is It, Anyway?" in the April 17-23 issue of UTW at urbantulsa.com for details).
The Owasso Republican said he was bummed that his term limits bill didn't pass, which would have set 12-year limits on statewide elected positions, like the attorney general and state school superintendent, and limited the governor to two terms (see "Seat's Taken" in the Dec. 27-Jan. 2 issue of UTW at urbantulsa.com for details).
He said he was also miffed about the failure of a bill by term-limited Sen. Jim Williamson, R-Tulsa, which would have given tax credits to business that contribute to private school scholarship programs.
Adelson, though, said his "gravest concern remains finding a permanent resolution for medical education in Tulsa for OSU, OU and the future of the Tulsa Regional Medical Center hospital site."
Last September, Ardent Health Services announced that it was ending its academic affiliation agreement, which establishes OSU Tulsa's medical resident training program.
Ardent officials cited a funding dispute with the state of Oklahoma as their reason for terminating the contract.
The termination process takes about two years to complete, but Ardent agreed this year to extend the agreement for a year while OSU looks for other funding and management for the site.
"What we have yet to address, and people will be working on this up until next session, is a permanent resolution to that," Adelson said, noting that the facility is serving about 200,000 Tulsans needing inpatient and outpatient care.
"If we lose that facility, those people are going to have to get their care still," he said.
"Sen. Brian Crain and I, and Sen. Mazzei, too, have worked hard--we're all very concerned about it, and right now, we don't have a permanent resolution. I worked on that most session, and a lot of us just regret that we don't have a permanent solution there," he added.
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