Remember the old westerns?
You never had to guess which were the bad guys and good guys. The bad guys wore black hats, the good guys white.
If it were only so obvious at the Oklahoma Legislature.
One day you put a white hat on a lawmaker whose eloquent, reasoned debate or sensible idea makes you proud to be an Oklahoman.
The next day you give 'em a black hat, and plenty of hell, appalled at their (pick one) venality, arrogance or stupidity.
The truth is, the Legislature is made up of folks capable of being very good and very bad or, sometimes, world-class hypocrites.
Sort of like us.
As the late former Gov. Henry Bellmon, arguably the state's sagest chief executive, once put it, "That's the problem with you reporters. You're too busy putting black hats and white hats on people. You never know when they're going to change."
The 2012 session doesn't even convene until Feb. 6, yet there is no shortage of lawmakers donning black hats one day and white ones the next.
In fact, some lawmakers are switchin' hats so fast it's a wonder they don't need neck braces or chiropractic treatments.
Take state Rep. Mike Reynolds. Please.
Reynolds, an Oklahoma City Republican, donned a black hat recently when he unveiled legislation aimed at reinstating don't ask-don't tell in the Oklahoma National Guard.
As if Oklahoma and homophobia weren't already synonymous to many out-of-staters, Reynolds reinforced the redneck stereotype by pandering to the knuckle-dragging fringe -- the very same who share state Rep. Sally Kern's bigoted view that our LGBT neighbors are a greater threat to America than terrorism.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a George W. Bush appointee, and top military brass urged an end to the anachronistic policy because it was unnecessary and unfairly targeted a segment of society that is as fiercely patriotic and loyal as any other.
There are only two plausible reasons to introduce such legislation: You're seriously homophobic and in dire need of therapy or you're shamelessly playing to a bigoted, radical fringe that fears homosexuals than religious zealots.
No sooner had Reynolds donned his black hat on don't ask-don't tell, he swapped it for a white hat.
Reynolds announced he would introduce legislation aimed at overturning a new state Ethics Commission rule that permits lobbyists to provide lunch or dinner for legislators at the Capitol.
Three years ago, the Ethics Commission reduced the amount that lobbyists can spend on each legislator from $300 to $100 per year. But only one commissioner remains from the panel that seemed determined to do something about the out-size influence of big money in the legislative process.
The commission now has a majority of members appointed by Republican elected leaders. It's morphed from a watchdog with bite into a lapdog devoted to ensuring the powers-that-be remain the powers-that-be.
The new rule allows lobbyists to provide one meal annually while the Legislature is in session without it counting against the $100 limit. Can't you just see a marquee outside a fourth-floor Capitol conference room: Today's Republican Caucus lunch sponsored by ConocoPhillips!
Reynolds is correct when he asserts "the public already disapproves of lobbyist influence at the Capitol, and I am certain they do not want lobbyists to be allowed to purchase even more meals for legislators. There's no justifiable reason for a lobbyist to buy our meals."
Some lawmakers (though, oddly, not Reynolds) are so troubled by the cozy relationships some of their colleagues have with special interest lobbyists -- expensive lunches and dinners, golf outings, NBA tickets -- that they have signed Common Cause's No Gifts registry, declaring they will not accept anything of value that could be remotely connected to their legislative duties.
Oklahoma's lawmakers are among the highest paid in the nation, their $38,400 base salary exceeding the state median income by nearly $1,000. The truth is, they can afford to go Dutch treat -- and they should, if for no other reason than to fight the perception (reality?) that special interests dominate the process.
On another day, Reynolds picked up his black hat again -- this time proposing a statewide referendum that would grant "personhood" status to a human embryo, an anti-abortion position so extreme that it was even rejected by voters in ultra-conservative Mississippi last year.
Reynolds' proposal would expand the class of "human beings" and ban birth control methods or in vitro fertilization that ended the life of any "human being" -- making no exception for pregnancies that occur because of rape or incest.
Isn't it amazing how Republicans like Reynolds bleat incessantly about getting the government out of our lives -- yet they're forever finding ways for the government to interfere with a woman's most private, personal decisions?
Across the rotunda, senators aren't averse to switchin' hats, either. Case in point: Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City.
Holt donned a white hat when he filed measures aimed at making the Oklahoma Legislature subject to the state's Open Meetings and Open Records Acts.
Talk about hypocrisy: A Legislature that blathers around-the-clock about openness and transparency cleverly exempts itself from the very provisions designed to shed light on government decision-making.
As a result, taxpayers are left to wonder how consensus is developed on key issues.
For example, what went on when Senate members of the joint legislative water task force met unannounced, behind closed doors last month? We know this (but only because somebody blabbed): they worked to create a legislative game plan to sell water to out-of-state interests.
Seriously? These elected "leaders" are sneaking around in private, discussing the most important issue for Oklahoma's future? You think about 3.7 million others in this state might have something to say about it? Or might want to know what the hell is going on?
As Holt noted, "I spent five years serving in the Oklahoma City government, where we were subject to the Open Meetings and Open Records Acts. It is almost a universally held opinion that the City of Oklahoma City has produced some of the most innovative and effective government in our state the last 20 years, and that was done while subject to these important taxpayer protections. I believe it is time the Legislature embraced these acts."
Alas, Holt's white hat status didn't last long. He quickly donned a black hat instead when he introduced legislation that would phase out the state income tax -- a reverse Robin Hood scheme that will reduce taxes for the state's wealthiest and increase them for the middle-class and poor.
Not to mention how it would jeopardize key public services, such as education, already suffering double-digit-percentage cuts because past legislatures approved nearly $1 billion in income tax cuts.
White hats, black hats. Exhilaration, exasperation. It's harmless fun when it's action on the silver screen. It's deadly serious when it's on the House and Senate floors.
Stay tuned. The white hats aren't guaranteed to prevail.
Share this article: