Maybe it's time to disband the Oklahoma Legislature.
No, I haven't embraced the wacky tea baggers who regard government as the enemy. And no, this isn't a fit of liberal pique over the fact ultra-conservative, Republican majorities control both houses.
It's just ... if we're going to pay lawmakers more than $50,000 a year in total compensation [salaries, benefits, etc.] for representative democracy, then let's have representative democracy.
What we're getting instead is the Californization of Oklahoma politics.
Let me explain: In order to be informed voters next year, Sooners won't have to just get up to speed on the statewide candidates [governor, lieutenant governor, treasurer, attorney general, etc.], legislative, congressional, judicial or county offices.
They also will need to educate themselves on nine -- count 'em, nine -- proposed constitutional amendments, all but one drafted by Republican lawmakers who hope to achieve at the ballot box what they could not in regular session, despite 21-seat House and four-seat Senate majorities.
It's a script straight out of California's wacky politics -- where all-too-often direct democracy [aka ballot propositions] supplants representative democracy [aka the Legislature] because state lawmakers can't seem to tackle many of the toughest problems or are distracted by superfluous issues.
We have representative democracy for a reason: Most of us don't have the time, much less the financial wherewithal, to camp at the state Capitol and immerse ourselves in the affairs of state. We elect representatives to be our proxies. They're supposed to study up, keep us informed, listen to our concerns and make decisions. If we don't like what they do, we can vote to throw them out of office.
So, you ask, what's wrong asking the people to vote? Nothing, when it's used sparingly to express the will of the people on the most important, big-picture policy decisions facing our democracy. What happens, though, is that lawmakers and special interests frequently propose constitutional amendments in pursuit of raw political power, not some over-arching public good.
Think about it.
Is there a compelling reason to extend term limits [State Question 747] to all statewide offices, not just governor -- except that Republicans haven't been particularly successful wrestling offices away from Democrats, especially Attorney General Drew Edmondson [four terms] and State Superintendent Sandy Garrett [five terms]?
Is it so important to establish English as the state's official language [SQ 751] -- or is it merely a tool to increase Republican votes by turning out ultra-rightwingers who often blame immigrants, legal and otherwise, for most of society's ills?
Is it really necessary to expand the state's Judicial Nomination Commission, which helps fill court vacancies, to include appointees by the House speaker and Senate president pro tempore -- or is it just another legislative power grab?
The fact is, Republican majorities in both houses weren't able to steer these measures past a Democratic governor, and a Democratic legislative minority that promised to uphold his vetoes. So, instead, they hope to trick the voters into thinking these matters are so vital to Oklahoma's future that the state Constitution must be amended.
Lawmakers can bloviate until the cows come home about "trusting the people to decide" and "giving the people the right to choose" ... blah, blah, blah. The reality is, it's all about raw political power.
Further, as we routinely rely on ballot measures to resolve issues that should be the Legislature's domain, we end up ceding even more power to deep-pocketed special interests. They already wield considerable influence at the Capitol -- check campaign contribution and lobbying reports against voting records.
Ballot measures afford the opportunity for them to create even more mischief: They can establish fake grass roots support groups with "good government"-sounding names in order to finance expensive petition drives or slick ad campaigns.
"Oklahomans generally are not sure who's behind it," said Dr. Bob Darcy, an Oklahoma State University political science professor, who's studied the state's history of initiative and referendum. Often, he said, "it's out-of-state organizations with a financial interest" in a particular issue.
California is the classic example of a state whipsawed by the back-and-forth of ballot-box public policy. Rather than sober, thoughtful debate in a deliberative, representative body, California voters are frequently confronted with a kaleidoscope of initiatives, packaged and sold incessantly in mainstream media, direct mail and on the Internet.
"It's a tool for special interests," said Phil Trounstine, a longtime California political analyst who operates calbuzz.com and blogs for Huffington Post. "Anybody with money can get something on the ballot or kill something.
"It was conceived as an expression of the popular will of the citizens who might be unable to accomplish what they want through the Legislature. It was designed to be an extraordinary event." What's evolved in California, he said, "is a perversion of its initial concept."
Incidentally, Texas lawmakers seem bound and determined to get in the direct democracy act, as well. They sent 11 propositions to the ballot this November -- even though Republicans control both houses and the governorship.
Two of next year's Oklahoma ballot measures, when considered together, underscore the problem.
The highest-profile initiative, SQ 744, circulated by the Oklahoma Education Association and other pro-education groups, would mandate that state lawmakers fund public schools at the regional average. Republican legislative leaders are opposed to the idea, as much as anything because they despise the state's largest teachers union [OEA]. As concerned as they are, however, that they cannot defeat it, they cleverly crafted a referendum, SQ 754, that would block such constitutional spending mandates.
What happens if both measures gain voter approval? We're off to a long, drawn-out court fight to determine which proposal prevails. Meanwhile, state lawmakers have done nothing substantive to resolve the embarrassing fact that Oklahoma spends less per pupil on education than any state in the region -- including Arkansas and New Mexico.
The long list of proposed constitutional amendments on next year's ballot isn't a recent phenomenon. As early as 1916, voters were presented with nine proposals in the same year. But isn't it way past time we ask ourselves this question: Is this really the way we want to make our most important public policy decisions? If so, then why even have a Legislature?
-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer www.okobserver.net
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