Twenty-one hours and 42 minutes. That's how long it took last week for the State Chamber's wealthy cabal to bully 28 state House Republicans into flip-flops of Olympian proportions.
One day, 68 House members -- including 39 GOPers -- refused to cap damages for pain and suffering. The next, 28 Republicans abruptly changed their minds, voting to limit what juries can award injured parties.
Move over Shannon Miller, Bart Conner and Mary Lou Retton. There's a new crop of gold medal gymnasts, performing in business suits on the floor of the Oklahoma House.
Whether you believe there is an evil in the land known as "jackpot justice" and that it must be eliminated is beside the point -- and a debate for another day.
What cannot -- indeed, must not -- be overlooked is the influence of big money in the legislative process. How else to explain the actions of 28 Republicans who'd sooner run naked through a church service than flip-flop on an issue?
We, of course, don't know what took place behind closed doors. How arms were twisted. What threats were delivered. What promises were made.
All we know for sure is that 39 Republicans joined 29 Democrats in rejecting a key amendment to HB 2128 at 2:19 p.m. March 15. At 11:05 the next morning, the House session was abruptly recessed, enabling the GOP Caucus to privately strategize. Ten minutes or so later, the House reconvened and -- voila! -- HB 2128 rose like a phoenix from the ashes.
Democrats quickly pointed out the hypocrisy and venality. House Minority Leader Scott Inman of Del City called it "an embarrassment," declaring he'd never seen such "arm-twisting." Rep. Richard Morrissette of Oklahoma City expressed sadness that House Speaker Kris Steele had "capitulated" to special interests: "I know he's a better man than this. I know he is."
Those demanding caps on non-economic damages would retort that Inman and Morrissette are both attorneys, anxious to keep alive the potential for enormous jury awards. And it is true that Inman and Morrissette are lawyers.
Don't be fooled into thinking this is a typical political battle over whose ox is being gored. This is about the outsize influence that a few wealthy Oklahomans exercise over the Legislature -- at the expense of everyone else.
Can you imagine a scenario in which rank-and-file taxpayers could flip that many legislative votes in less than 24 hours? Not only no -- hell, no.
How can the average citizen compete in the rough-and-tumble legislative process against those who can afford full-time lobbyists, who give $5,000 campaign contributions, who offer evenings in the suites at the Oklahoma City Thunder games?
Move over Shannon Miller, Bart Conner and
Mary Lou Retton. There’s a new crop of gold
medal gymnasts, performing in business
suits on the floor of the Oklahoma House.
Take a look at Steele's campaign contributors the last two years. He didn't formally assume the speakership until this year, but he's been the de facto speaker in waiting since he became ex-Speaker Chris Benge's top lieutenant. Steele's donor list suggests special interests knew the score: He wasn't just one of 101 House members -- he was the one.
Steele is author of HB 2128 that would help protect corporations, health care professionals and others from big judgments in the event they've been proven to have wrong someone. Who's on his list of contributors? In the last quarter of 2009 alone, the donors included Ardent Health Services ($1,000), DrPAC ($1,000), Oklahoma Hospital Association PAC ($1,000), and Oklahoma Surgical Hospital ($2,500). In 2010, donors included Koch Industries PAC ($2,000), Oklahoma Society of Anesthesiologists PAC ($3,500), Chesapeake Oklahoma PAC ($4,750), and Spectra Energy PAC ($1,000).
Sure, rank-and-file citizens can band together and form their own special interest groups. But few can compete with the deep pockets whose multi-pronged approach -- paid lobbyists, gifts, campaign contributions, support of the Speaker's Ball, etc. -- always ensures legislative doors are open and phone calls returned.
Just ask those families with autistic children. They've worked for years to persuade lawmakers to require insurance companies to cover treatment for a malady that now afflicts 1 in 100 children. A day after reviving HB 2128, the House again succumbed to the power of big insurance and rejected Tahlequah Rep. Mike Brown's latest effort to mandate the coverage.
The House majority at least has been consistent when it comes to insurance mandates -- none approved since the GOP took control in the 2004 elections. But the flip-flopping on HB 2128 deserves the attention of all Oklahomans. So here's a list of those who thought HB 2128 was a terrible idea one day and a wonderful one the next:
Reps. Lisa Billy, David Brumbaugh, Dennis Casey, Josh Cockroft, Marian Cooksey, Lee Denney, David Derby, John Enns, George Faught, Elise Hall, Corey Holland, Mike Jackson, Charlie Joyner, Sally Kern, Charles Key, Dan Kirby, Scott Martin, Skye McNiel, Glen Mulready, Tom Newell, Jadine Nollan, Charles Ortega, Pat Ownbey, Marty Quinn, Mike Sanders, T.W. Shannon, Todd Thomsen and Steve Vaughan.
Two others who voted against it the first go-around were absent -- imagine that! -- for the second: Reps. Leslie Osborn and Mike Ritze.
Here's the list of Republicans who stuck with their first votes: Reps. John Bennett, Gus Blackwell, Mike Christian, Randy Grau, Fred Jordan, Mike Reynolds, Aaron Stiles, Randy Terrill and John Trebilcock.
The next time legislators crow about how firmly they stand on their principles, remember the gnarly case of HB 2128. You see, far too many legislators adhere to only one principle, the political golden rule: He who has the gold rules.
--(Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; okobserver.net)
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