There is a scientific term to describe the bizarre political behavior that often accompanies election years. It's call the "silly season."
In the heat of campaigns, incumbents and wannabes alike say and do the darndest things as they pursue the affections of frequently indifferent voters and the attention of mainstream media entranced by grassfires and triple ax murders.
This election year, though, promises to be even zanier than usual.
It's not enough that all 101 state House seats and half the state Senate's 48 seats are up for grabs -- or that incumbents won't be seeking re-election for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and state superintendent, just to name a few.
Toss in the state's migraine-inducing budget crisis--a $1 billion revenue shortfall this fiscal year and bleak prospects for next--and you've created a recipe for wackiness, even by Oklahoma's often low standards.
Perhaps that helps explain the flurry of recent editorial interest in Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Jari Askins' proposal to create a budget-only session every other year.
Currently, lawmakers meet every February through May not only to hammer out an annual state budget but also to consider new laws and tweak existing ones. Multi-tasking legislators rarely finalize the budget until the session's final hours, leaving many members clueless about what it contains and the rationale for its priorities.
Askins, a former state representative now serving as lieutenant governor, thinks Oklahoma would be better off if lawmakers devoted an entire session to studying, negotiating and debating a longer-term -- i.e. two-year -- state spending blueprint, rather than mixing the fiscal discussions with routine legislative sausage-making.
Which brings us to the 2010 session and campaign.
As one who's concerned about dangerous bridges and crumbling prisons, dwindling mental health services and overcrowded classrooms, I want our elected state leaders focused on the complexities of today's fiscal crisis--not on sideshow issues like tax-free holidays for gun sales, teaching the Bible in public schools or wresting power from the state's criminal court judges.
Or as state Rep. Ryan Kiesel, D-Seminole, put it, "This session is a choice between awful and terrible. I start with the assumption that all legislation is egregious at this point."
Unfortunately, helping right the (fiscally) sinking ship of state isn't as important to some lawmakers as advancing a social agenda or pandering to the redneck masses--in other words, winning re-election.
Consider Rep. Sally Kern's latest idea. The Oklahoma City Republican -- infamous for contending that gays and lesbians are greater threats to America than terrorists -- now wants to make divorce all-but-impossible in Oklahoma.
There's room for serious discussion about a serious problem: Why is Oklahoma's divorce rate perennially among the nation's highest? Why do so many marriages break up and so many families disintegrate in a state that fancies itself as a buckle on the Bible belt?
But Kern's proposal isn't rooted in reality. She would prevent judges from granting divorces on the grounds of incompatibility if there are minor children in the home, the marriage has lasted at least 10 years or if either party objects to the divorce. Sorry to say, but some marriages are so bad that it's worse for children to be trapped in such a volatile home. Further, can't you imagine an abusive, controlling spouse refusing to let the other escape?
"Frankly, I don't know when Rep. Kern finds the time to dream up this bizarre legislation," said Rep. Al McAffrey, an Oklahoma City Democrat. "Our state is facing a budget crisis and several other significant challenges.
Given the state of our economy, we need steady leaders in the Legislature that are ready to create serious solutions, not political side shows."
Guns and God are popular election year topics for lawmakers, as well.
Sen. Tom Ivester wants to create elective Bible classes in state schools, though the Elk City Democrat is quick to point out that he envisions it as a history--not a religion--course.
Ivester is playing with fire. We have churches and Sunday schools to teach the Bible the way each denomination sees fit. Oklahoma educators have enough problems without being thrust into the middle of this quagmire. Just ask Texas, where schools have been tied in knots over this issue in recent years.
Meanwhile, two other Democrats, Sen. John Sparks of Norman and Rep. Wes Hilliard of Sulphur, want to create a "Second Amendment Weekend Sales Tax Holiday" that would give Oklahomans a sales tax break on handguns, rifles and shotguns on a weekend each year.
My children are grown, but I well remember driving to the outlet malls in north Texas to take advantage of that state's back-to-school, tax-free weekends, a program that Oklahoma has replicated. Helping parents get their children ready for school is a noble idea. Helping hobbyists save a few bucks is not. What's next? A tax-free weekend for golf equipment?
How about this instead: If you're hell-bent on cutting taxes at a time when the state already is having trouble paying its bills, why not finally give working stiffs and the poor a break by eliminating the sales tax on groceries? That would probably win more gratitude and votes than playing to the NRA crowd.
What's next? Legalizing the use of silencers? Oh, wait -- Republican Sen. Steve Russell of Oklahoma City has filed a bill that would allow hunters to use the James Bond-esque devices. Think Dick Cheney's hunting partner would approve?
-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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