It's not often Lawrence Welk and his "one-uh and two-uh" are invoked in the give-and-take on the floor of the Oklahoma House of Representatives. But such Alice in Wonderland moments are increasingly common in a session where the Republican majority is splintering badly and outnumbered Democrats fight to remain relevant.
Welk's been dead for nearly two decades, but reruns of his champagne music hour remain a Saturday night favorite on the Oklahoma Educational Television Authority -- a tradition for many silver-haired Sooners that could be a casualty of a long, unrelenting campaign by rightwing ideologues to pull the plug on public television.
The War on Big Bird isn't limited to Washington. It's also being waged in the Legislature nearest you. And even though OETA survived a sneaky attack last week -- couched, naturally, in flowery, good government rhetoric -- its future is anything but certain.
OETA and public television have been in the legislative crosshairs for years, for a variety of reasons. But for those who long have opposed it -- some arguing it isn't an essential government function, others that it's a biased propaganda voice for evil liberals -- there is no more opportune moment to strike than in the midst of a severe budget crunch.
The first salvo this session was Senate Bill 89, authored by Sen. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond, and Rep. Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie. The bill would have required OETA to broadcast House and Senate sessions, committee hearings and other state government meetings.
Seems reasonable enough, doesn't it? The state-owned broadcaster helping increase government transparency.
But before you get all misty-eyed wrapping yourself in the flag and humming the Star Spangled Banner, consider this: There was no money in the bill to pay for it (at least a $450,000 annual expense) and precious little likelihood that lawmakers -- grappling with a $600 million budget hole and imposing cuts of up to seven percent on many state agencies -- could find the money even if they wanted to.
So it would have been another of those infamous "unfunded" mandates that Republicans used to rail about -- "used to" before they took control of the Legislature. Now they spread unfunded mandates like pixie dust -- 38 imposed on public schools this session alone.
More significant: The C-Span-style requirement would have meant to end to popular -- yes, educational -- programming. If forced to broadcast all things legislative, what hours will OETA broadcast Sesame Street or American Experience, PBS Newshour or Charlie Rose, Ken Burns' latest historical epic or, yes, Lawrence Welk?
Legislative sessions already are broadcast -- both audio and video -- on the Internet. As state Rep. Mike Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City, points out, the current system has a capacity of 500 viewers at a time, but "we've never maxed it out so far as I know." So it begs the question: Where's the demand?
Murphey has a solid track record of pursuing ways to make government more open and transparent. But his defense of SB 89 was at times contradictory and laughable.
He noted -- correctly -- that far too many Oklahomans don't have access to the Internet, much less the high-speed version best suited to watching the Legislature on the web. He then argued that traditional OETA programming wouldn't necessarily be at risk because digital television affords more broadcast channels. In other words, you could broadcast House and Senate sessions on OETA's digital channels.
Except ... if you're outside the metro areas and you're Internet service is spotty, it isn't likely you have any better access to digital TV channels.
The truth is, legislators often end up in rhetorical knots, contradicting their own logic, when masking their real motives.
SB 89 may have been about transparency for Murphey, but that wasn't the real goal. The real goal was to set up OETA for failure. It's a simple formula: Micromanage its programming, mandate its coverage, don't give it the financial resources to pay for the added duties, cut its overall budget and eventually -- voila! -- you've so weakened the system that the only reasonable choice is to shut it down. And you don't even get your hands dirty.
It's not an honest approach to the debate over whether state government ought to be in the television business. And that's perhaps the best explanation for why public television devotees in both parties joined forces with the fiercest public television foes to defeat this bill. The vote wasn't even close: 82-15.
Now, the lopsided vote doesn't mean OETA is in the clear. Jolley and Murphey could find a way to slip their proposal into another bill before session's end. More likely, OETA's funding will be seriously scrutinized when lawmakers are asked to vote on the 2011-12 budget.
Those who want to eliminate OETA because it's not a core government function are a small minority in the Oklahoma Legislature. So are those who want to cripple it because they view it as a mouthpiece of the wine sipping left. But that doesn't mean OETA -- hit hard just like other state agencies during the recession -- won't take a larger-than-average cut. It's easier politically to trim OETA than schools, prisons or highways.
But last week's vote on SB 89 also sent a clear message that the vast majority of lawmakers know their constituents believe in OETA and its mission.
Rep. Doug Cox, R-Grove, wasn't kidding (entirely) when he noted that many in his district -- filled with retirees, living around Grand Lake -- are concerned about the fate of Welk's show.
OETA already provides more state government coverage than the state's commercial TV stations combined. Its weekday Oklahoma News Report is a sober throwback to an era when TV news wasn't an oxymoron. Could it do more? Yes. Would it be good for Oklahomans to have easier access to the unfiltered antics of their lawmakers? Of course.
But there's no free lunch. It's going to cost more to do more. And that's a debate worth having. Unfortunately, given the Legislature's current state of affairs, we're probably going to get a steady diet of demagoguery instead. And we're going to see less of it than ever on television.
--(Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; okobserver.net)
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