Put up or shut up!
The old schoolyard taunt is richly apropos for the state Legislature's Republican majority as it prepares for the 2012 session.
For years GOP candidates tarred incumbent Democrats as tax-and-spend liberals. Republicans touted themselves as "small government" devotees, vowing to "starve the beast" if only voters would give them control.
Voters did just that. In fact, the GOP not only dominates both legislative houses, but owns every statewide elected office, as well.
Next spring, Republicans will be presented the perfect opportunity to prove "starve the beast" was more than hollow sloganeering.
One of their own, state Rep. Gary Banz of Midwest City, thinks it's only right in these austere times that the Legislature tighten its belt, too. So he's suggesting we shrink the membership of the House and Senate by 10 percent.
Suddenly, all these "small government" bloviators are morphing into the second coming of Shannon Miller and Bart Conner -- twisting themselves into human pretzels in an effort to explain why "smaller government" isn't such a good idea when applied to their little clubhouse.
Please forgive me if I'm unable to summon any crocodile tears.
Frankly, the House and Senate have been in their current configurations -- 101 representatives, 48 senators -- so long that, until Banz's proposal, I hadn't given any thought to delivering them a heaping spoonful of their own let-them-eat-cake, budget-slashing medicine.
Especially if a proposed constitutional amendment reaches the ballot and wins voter approval, requiring the Legislature to use specific fair and non-partisan guidelines when redrawing House, Senate and congressional boundaries.
Let's not even pretend redistricting is about the good of the people or preserving communities of interest. It's about protecting incumbents and enhancing political power -- period. Democrats choreographed the charade for most of the 20th Century, Republicans do so now.
The initiative petition spearheaded by Sen. Jim Wilson, D-Tahlequah, is aimed at limiting the Legislature's power to operate primarily in its self-interest and often with indifference toward the public's -- essentially pursuing one of two outcomes: ensuring incumbents are re-elected with minimal sweat or whacking the coconuts of the opposition party.
The best approach would be to give an independent, bipartisan, do-gooder commission the resources and the power to redraw legislative and congressional boundaries.
Wilson's proposal would leave the power with the Legislature, but would give specific instructions on how to accomplish the task, such as requiring districts be as equal in population and as compact as possible and protecting equal opportunities for minority voters.
If the petition drive is successful -- gathering at least 82,782 valid signatures this fall -- the proposal is targeted to appear on the November 2012 ballot. If approved by voters, lawmakers would have until May 31, 2013 to redraw the districts under the new guidelines.
In the meantime, Wilson is challenging the current Senate redistricting plan in state district court in Oklahoma City, even though it won't affect him -- he'll be forced from office after 2012 because of term limits. It's unlikely the court case will be resolved before the 2012 elections are staged under the redistricting plans approved last spring by the Legislature.
The court case and initiative petition are hardly sideshows, but -- for my money -- neither affords near the drama of a Republican majority wrestling with whether to give voters the right to decide whether 101 House members and 48 senators is too many.
Can GOP majorities that have sent one cockamamie referendum to the statewide ballot after another in recent years -- each time claiming they, unlike Democrats, trust the voters to decide important issues of the day -- really reverse course and deny voters the right to decide this one?
If they can, and if they do, and if the voters let them get by with such blatant hypocrisy, then Oklahoma voters will have forfeited the right to ever bitch again about their elected officials. Just bend over and declare, "Sir, may I have another?"
As you might suspect, the squealing has begun among Republicans who fear they may no longer have a district to represent (nor the steady, taxpayer-funded paycheck and benefits that average $50k annually).
It's especially deafening in the hinterlands, where lawmakers whine about the impossible distances they would be forced to travel in order to service constituents, if fewer districts covered larger areas.
Forgive my French: What a crock of bulls---.
I covered legislatures and politics in two of America's largest (both in population and land mass) states -- Texas and California. I never heard lawmakers pissin' and moanin' about the distances they were required to travel -- often far greater than almost any lawmaker would face in little old Oklahoma.
Look at the numbers: California's population (37.2 million) is 10 times Oklahoma's (3.75 million), spread out across 163,696 square miles compared to Oklahoma's 68,667 square miles.
Yet California's Assembly (their equivalent of the House of Representatives) has 80 members -- 21 fewer than Oklahoma's. California's Senate is comprised of 40 senators -- eight fewer than Oklahoma's.
What about Texas? Our elected leaders are always baying that we need to be more like Texas. The Lone Star State's population is 25.1 million, sprinkled across 266,853 square miles -- both figures dwarf Oklahoma.
Texas' House has 150 members, but its Senate only 31.
It's worth noting, of course, that Banz's idea is largely symbolic. It would save the state only about $1.2 million a year out of a nearly $6 billion budget. And the average number of constituents in each district would climb by only about 4,000 in the House and 9,000 in the Senate.
No doubt the leaders of both major parties are burning the midnight oil, trying to figure out whether Banz's proposal somehow -- perhaps even inadvertently -- gives political advantage to the other side.
I can assure you there is no such angst among rank-and-file Oklahomans.
--Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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