In baseball, it's known as the Hot Stove League, the long, oft-dreary winter months when seam-heads gather 'round the chimenea to speculate about possible trades, free agent signings, even which manager's job is most in jeopardy.
I don't know if there's a similar moniker for the December-February stretch that leads up to Opening Day of the next legislative session. But I do know this: Just like baseball's off-season, politicos pass their down time speculating -- who's in, who's out, who'll carry what legislation, what will be debated, what won't.
With apologies to Twitter, the latest Trending Topics:
• Speaker-elect Kris Steele hasn't assumed power yet, but House
Republicans already are musing about his possible successor in two years.
Could it be incoming Speaker Pro Tem Jeff Hickman of Dacoma? Or Floor Leader-to-be Dan Sullivan of Tulsa? Will someone else emerge -- maybe even a member of the ultra-right's Liberty Caucus?
• Will Steele survive a full two-year term as speaker? Or will the friction between corporatist Republicans -- carrying water for the State Chamber -- and the loosely-knit Liberty Caucus of tea partiers, theocrats, John Birchers and nativists, et al, erupt into open warfare?
And if it does, what will be the flash points? Corporate welfare? A hospital provider fee? Immigration? Open carry? Redistricting?
• Is there anything Democrats can do to be relevant in the upcoming session? They lost their sole power position -- governor. And their numbers shrank in both houses -- down to 31 of 101 in the House and 16 of 48 in the Senate.
Can they escape their splintered, unwieldy stereotype and unite behind a common agenda -- cleverly deploying their voting bloc, issue by issue, based on which GOP faction gives them the best deal?
Or will they wallow in the Will Rogers' punch line -- "I don't belong to an organized political party. I'm a Democrat." -- dooming them to the margins for the next two years?
• Are any Democrats thinking of switching parties?
Twenty state legislators have done so nationally since the mid-terms -- most in the South.
Most of the chattered centered early on U.S. Rep. Dan Boren, a Blue Dog who's the state's only congressional Democrat. As magic as the Boren name is, he only garnered 57 percent of the vote in November against an underfunded, unknown Republican -- a sure sign of this year's GOP landslide. Boren, though, has said he'll never switch parties.
What about state legislators? Anybody thinking of bolting? Particularly in once solidly Democratic rural areas that are fast trending Republican? Probably not. There's not much incentive for an overwhelming GOP majority to woo Democrats. Plus, with redistricting coming up, Republicans may figure they'll win those areas sooner rather than later, anyway.
• What are longtime state bureaucrats -- appointed by Democrats from the governor to attorney general to labor commissioner -- going to do now that Republicans control every statewide elected office? It's a difficult job market, at best, given the economy. It's even tougher when you know newly elected GOP officeholders are going to fill many of those slots with their party's loyalists.
One who's surviving the political transition: Deputy State Treasurer Tim Allen, a gem who's being retained by incoming Republican state Treasurer Ken Miller.
• Will the corporatists and ultra-conservatives clash over guns? The State Chamber and business leaders are worried sick about the state's image after the Sharia fiasco, among others, fearing it is making it more difficult to attract new business -- and jobs -- to the state.
What will corporate leaders elsewhere think if -- when? -- the Oklahoma Legislature debates whether to permit the open-carry of firearms (by those with concealed weapons permits) and allow them in college classrooms?
I know, I know: 43 states already permit open-carry. It wouldn't be kindling except that a national -- and international -- narrative has emerged (at least among late night comics) in recent years, depicting our state as a narrow-minded backwater stuck in the 19th Century.
Will the new speaker or Senate President Pro Tem, Sapulpa Sen. Brian Bingman, quietly work to kill the proposals? They must know that if either is allowed to come up for a vote, the pressure to support what's widely viewed among conservatives as a 2nd Amendment right will be enormous.
Don't be surprised if Rep. Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie, ends up authoring both measures -- if they're filed at all.
• Will the Legislature seriously tackle the issue of corporate welfare? There are $5.8 billion in tax exemptions on the books -- almost as much as the entire state budget.
GOP lawmakers are sharply divided on the subject: Most corporatists don't want to monkey with the system. After all, their campaigns -- and political power -- are financed by deep-pocket-types who benefit from the tax breaks and credits. The ultra-conservatives don't like the idea that so-called free enterprisers claim devotion to free market capitalism all the while feasting at the taxpayers' trough.
The hard-righters argue that if many of the exemptions were eliminated, vital state services could be fully funded -- and rank-and-file taxpayers could be given a significant income tax break.
This is much pondered these days: What if the Liberty Caucus types and minority Democrats joined forces, demanding a line-by-line review of the exemptions? And what if they worked together to eliminate many of them?
What would that do to the balance of power in the Oklahoma Legislature this spring?
The pre-session stove burns red hot.
-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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