Henry Bellmon's death last week wasn't just a moment to mourn the loss of an Oklahoma giant, a two-term U.S. senator and governor with a rare combination of common sense and uncommon courage. It also was a sobering reminder of where Oklahoma stands today -- both in terms of challenges and political leadership.
No one knows for sure how long the state will remain in the clutches of this nasty worldwide recession, but it's a safe bet the next year won't be pretty: Revenues down, demand for services up.
What further complicates a bleak scenario is this: Virtually all of the key players in the 2010 legislative process are lame ducks, in their final year in office.
House Speaker Chris Benge, R-Tulsa, term-limited. Senate President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City, term-limited. Democratic Gov. Brad Henry, term-limited.
Even the top legislative Democrats, Rep. Danny Morgan of Prague and Sen. Charlie Laster of Shawnee, are leaving their leadership posts after next year.
As lame ducks, some politicos rediscover their internal compasses -- i.e. principles -- that were repressed by years of political calculations focused on balancing the oft-competing demands of campaign donors, party elites and voters. Figuring they no longer have anything to lose, they end up (gasp!) doing what they believe is right, rather than politically expedient.
Others, however, shift into cruise-control, opting for the path of least resistance and leaving the bruising battles to the young lions, who hunger for political power. Typically, not much gets done -- for good or ill -- in an auto-pilot session.
Frankly, I'm not optimistic that next year will be anything other than a just-getting-by session, punting the most challenging policy decisions -- taxes, spending, ethics reform, health care for autistic children, to name a few -- with a hang time of at least one more year.
First, many lawmakers won't want to tackle the toughest, long-term issues during an election year for fear it could alienate their contributors or give their opponents ammunition.
Second, the characters at the top of the state government flow chart -- Henry, Coffee and Benge -- don't seem positioned to wield the kind of power necessary to effect major changes.
Benge divides the spoils, as expected, on a partisan basis, yet wins plaudits from both sides for his congeniality. Since taking over last-minute for the disgraced former Speaker Lance Cargill in 2008, Benge has employed the speaker's power more carefully and less overtly than just about any House leader in modern times.
He's been more of a caretaker, working overtime to hold together the GOP's oft-quirky personalities and factions that range from moderates to wingnuts. That Republicans managed to expand their majority to 19 seats [60-41] in the last election gave him some breathing room, but his public persona doesn't suggest he'll somehow morph into the second coming of power-wielding speakers.
The House GOP, at least, set the stage for a smooth transition in leadership. Speaker Pro Tem Kris Steele, a Methodist minister from Shawnee known primarily for his work on children's issues, already has been tabbed as the speaker-in-waiting for 2011.
In the Senate, four Republicans are locked in a fierce battle to determine Coffee's 2011 successor: Sens. Brian Crain of Tulsa, Brian Bingman of Sapulpa, Harry Coates of Seminole and Cliff Aldridge of Midwest City all eye the post that he's vacating.
Where does that leave Coffee in 2010? In a less-than-enviable position.
In his first year as pro tem, he was dogged by questions about late tax payments, all but dousing any dreams he might have had of statewide office. A possible further complication: Coffee's second-in-command, Sen. Todd Lamb of Edmond, will be focused on his quest to become the state's next lieutenant governor.
As for the governor, Henry might be even more congenial than Benge. He stresses a Kumbaya-esque bipartisanship that rarely makes waves or drives the agenda. His style is the antithesis of his predecessor, Republican Frank Keating, who rarely passed up an opportunity to flex his muscles while legislation was being drafted or to veto it if it wasn't to his liking.
Inside baseball worth caring about? Yes, because these are the folks who will be at the forefront of key decisions about how to allocate the shrinking state revenue pie.
I know: many are delighted that lawmakers have less to spend, figuring too many tax dollars are squandered. Further, they are convinced Oklahomans are overtaxed. The truth is, we're 42nd nationally in per capita taxes -- $854 per person less annually than the national average, according to the Oklahoma Policy Institute.
These ever-present anti-taxers -- the Grover Norquist crowd that wants to shrink government as much as possible and drown the rest in the bathtub -- know the cost of everything and the value of nothing.
Think Oklahoma roads are state of the art? What about our bridges? Our schools? Too many fail to make the connection between taxes and services. There is no free lunch.
All of which makes the loss of Henry Bellmon even more poignant.
Bellmon epitomized what Americans claim they want in their leaders: An elected official with the guts to make the tough calls and leave the rest in the voters' hands.
Whether it was voting for the Panama Canal treaty or busing to achieve racial balance in public schools -- neither very popular in Oklahoma -- Bellmon educated himself on the issues, made up his mind, cast his votes and still managed to be elected twice as governor and twice as U.S. senator.
Today's elected leaders would do well to follow Bellmon's model.
-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer www.okobserver.net
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