Once upon a time, in a land called Oklahoma, Republicans worked overtime to broad-brush the Democratic majority as corrupt, career politicians -- liberal tax-and-spenders incapable of peeling themselves away from the taxpayers' trough and excelling in the real world of rugged individualism.
Republicans incessantly promised that things would be different if they gained control of state government: they would adhere to conservative, free-market principles. They would govern with honor, integrity and transparency. They would be public servants, not career politicians, doing their duty for a season before returning to the private sector to live happily ever after.
Six years ago, the GOP took control of the state House. Four years later, it corralled a Senate majority. Today, Republicans fill every statewide elected office -- from governor to labor commissioner.
And the fairy tale shared across the land the last six years has turned out to be just that -- a fairy tale. When it comes to Oklahoma politics, Republican hegemony more closely resembles a morality tale.
As the Legislature reconvenes early next month, a sitting GOP House member stands accused in state criminal court of public corruption. And a Republican state senator is tarred by allegations he helped influence the awarding of a contract for a new juvenile detention facility to a group represented by a lobbyist with whom he was having an extramarital affair.
In addition, the GOP majorities -- with help from Democratic former Gov. Brad Henry -- approved hundreds of millions of dollars in new business tax breaks and incentives. Free-market capitalism? Not exactly. It's corporate welfare, pure and simple.
And many of those anti-government crusaders are scrambling to latch onto as many high-paying state government jobs as possible -- three to the insurance department, one as Secretary of State, another was a top state Senate advisor.
Gene Stipe, where art thou?
My point isn't that both parties are equally venal, corrupt and hypocritical. There's already an epidemic of that sort of cynicism. The real issue here is us, the electorate. Far too many of us buy into trite stereotyping that depicts one side as evil, the other virtuous. We don't engage in civics, ask the tough questions or hold our elected officials accountable. We get the government we deserve; yet we're all-too-often surprised and disillusioned.
New House Speaker Kris Steele officially has been in office less than two weeks, but he already is grappling with a potentially explosive situation -- one that not only could undermine his speakership, but also shake public confidence in Steele's and the GOP majority's promises to conduct state affairs with transparency and integrity.
The "situation" involves one of the state House's highest profile members, Rep. Randy Terrill, R-Moore.
Terrill, a former Mouth of the House award-winner best known for his tough-on-illegal-immigration screeds, is accused in state district court of conspiring to create an $80,000-a-year state job for former state Sen. Debbe Leftwich, D-Oklahoma City, so his friend, Rep. Mike Christian, R-Oklahoma City, could run for her open Senate seat.
Steele's Jan. 4 swearing in as speaker was barely complete before state Rep. Mike Brown, D-Tahlequah, called for a House investigation into Terrill's conduct.
For his part, Steele called the charges "very serious" and promised the House is "in the process of carefully reviewing our options and obligations as a legislative body. Any actions taken must comply with the rule of law, respect the rights of the accused, and fulfill our duty to the public," he said.
Alas, there is a political calculus involved. Steele is presiding over the largest Republican caucus in state House history -- 70 of the 101 seats. And it is a diverse group that includes moderates, corporatists, social conservatives and Tea Partiers -- or some combination thereof. One of the largest blocs -- the self-styled Liberty Caucus -- can count up to two dozen or so as members, depending on the issue. They're a loosely-knit group of ultra-conservative theocrats, birthers and Tenthers, just to name a few, and they already have taken at aim Steele, publicly wondering if he's "conservative" enough.
Steele can hide behind the criminal charges, choosing to let the court case play out first and ensuring he doesn't stir more enmity among his GOP doubters. Or he can walk the walk on integrity and transparency in government, appointing a bipartisan committee to investigate and determine whether Terrill's conduct violated House rules. It's the riskier of the two choices, but it would signal he is serious about Republican promises that this is a new day in Oklahoma politics.
Further, Steele, new Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman R-Sapulpa and Gov. Mary Fallin -- in order to remain true to GOP campaign rhetoric that helped them secure total state government control -- must undertake a thorough review of the state's nearly $5.8 billion in tax breaks, credits and incentives, an estimated $2 billion of which never created a single job. The state's fiscal crisis demands no less.
Finally, it's time for taxpayers to take stock of the hypocrisy of anti-government Republicans now extending their time on the state payroll by accepting cushy agency jobs after leaving their legislative positions.
Examples: former Senate President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee R-Oklahoma City is the new secretary of state. Former state Sen. Jim Williamson R-Tulsa starts his second year as a well-paid state Senate advisor. Former state Senators Randy Brogdon R-Owasso and Owen Laughlin R-Woodward and state Rep. Mike Thompson R-Oklahoma City are joining the state Insurance Department staff.
Both Brogdon's and Thompson's legislative terms just ended. The state Constitution prohibits former lawmakers from working for a state agency for two years after leaving office, unless their salaries are paid for with private or federal dollars. An estimated 99 percent of the Insurance Department's budget comes from fees and penalties, so the ex-legislators believe they're following the letter of the law in accepting the positions.
Oklahoma is best served with the cooling off period. After all, Brogdon and Thompson cast votes last year that impacted all state government and agencies, including the insurance department. What's to prevent a legislator from working to create a well-paid position in a state agency that he or she or a colleague can take the very day they leave office?
Oh, wait. That's what Terrill is alleged to have done. Terrill notes that the salary that Leftwich -- or whomever was hired into the post at the state medical examiner's office -- would have received was funded by non-appropriated dollars.
The criminal courts will decide whether Terrill acted illegally. The court of public opinion will determine whether the new Republican majority is living up to its promises -- to lead state government with honor, integrity and transparency; to adhere to conservative, free-market principles; and to act as public servants, not career politicians.
-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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