POSTED ON APRIL 10, 2013:
Dominant party still has internal battles
The state lawmaker leaned closer and demanded anonymity for the heresy he was about to utter: "Seventy-two," he said in a lowered voice, "isn't a good thing."
Seventy-two is the number of seats Republicans control in the Oklahoma House of Representatives.
Out of 101.
There are not enough Democrats -- only 29 in the House -- to derail anything, no matter how preposterous, or to pass anything, no matter how sensible.
What the Republicans want, the Republicans have the votes to get. Total domination.
Just because there are 72 R's in the House doesn't mean they march through the legislative session in lock-step. Some days, in fact, it seems like there's more than two parties in the House -- and that's just on the GOP side of the aisle.
House and Senate Republicans have clashed over how much to cut the state's income tax, and wing nut Republicans lashed out at their GOP brethren over anti-United Nations legislation.
The fault line over taxes is hardly new. Last year, Republicans ended up scrapping a plan to cut taxes again because they couldn't agree on how much, how soon. This year, House and Senate tax-cutters offered competing plans again, but the differences didn't -- at least initially -- seem as deep.
One proposal, supported by the governor, House speaker and Senate president, would lower the top state income tax from 5.25 percent to 5 percent. The other, pushed by Tulsa Sen. Mike Mazzei and others, would lower the rate to 4.75 percent but offset the lost revenue by eliminating some tax credits and exemptions.
The tax-cut debate fired up, though, when a House committee killed Mazzei's proposal (which won Senate approval earlier this session). In retaliation, Mazzei, the Senate Finance Committee chairman, put House Bill 2032 on hold.
The tit-for-tat set off a furious round of closed-door caucusing. Finally, the Senate committee approved a modified version of the House bill that now will be considered by the full Senate.
Legislative leaders and the governor, of course, argue there's plenty of time before the session ends in late May to resolve the tax differences -- and that's true.
But especially vexing for Republicans of all stripes is the issue of tax credits and exemptions.
Some, like Mazzei and Oklahoma City Rep. David Dank, have long raised questions about the tax breaks that cost the state treasury billions of dollars. But they can't get the Legislature's Powers-That-Be to seriously review them, no doubt afraid some nifty little back-scratchers for their campaign financiers will be exposed, enraging the voters.
The revised HB 2032 approved in Senate committee included a proposal to modify five tax credits from transferrable to refundable. Clearly, the intra-party battle over taxes is far from over.
Even more entertaining -- from a purely politics as a spectator sport seat perch -- is the latest dust-up over UN Agenda 21, the non-binding, two-decade-old resolution encouraging sustainable development.
One of the ways the GOP garnered such lopsided legislative numbers was by embracing a small but enthusiastic uber-right fringe. The tin-foil-hatters turned out in sufficient numbers to help elect some of their own to our august lawmaking bodies. It's difficult to be precise how many Junior John Birchers there are in the Oklahoma Legislature, but it is not a stretch to suggest it approaches three dozen.
And they are hell-bent on protecting 'Mur-Uh-Cuh (that's wing nut-speak for America) from all manner of conspiracies.
One of their top pursuits this session was House Bill 1412 by Oklahoma City Rep. Sally Kern -- yes, the same Silly Sally who asserted homosexuals are a greater threat to 'Mur-Uh-Cuh than terrorists. It would have prevented any political subdivision in Oklahoma from adopting or implementing any of Agenda 21's policies.
Why? The alternative-universe crowd believes Agenda 21 is a One World Government conspiracy to strip 'Mur-Uh-Cans of their personal property rights.
HB 1412's implications were no laughing matter, however. The OU Health Sciences Center could have been prevented from working with the World Health Organization on preventing emerging diseases. OSU's agriculture department could have been thwarted from working with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization on drought-resistant crops and other farm technologies.
The House played along with the nonsense by approving HB 1412. The adults in the state Senate promptly drove a well-deserved stake in its heart. Predictably, the wing nuts went ballistic.
Sooner Tea Party co-founder Al Gerhart dispatched a fiery e-mail to Oklahoma City Sen. Cliff Branan, who as chairman of the Senate Energy and Environment Committee announced the bill was DOA.
"Get that bill heard or I will make sure you regret not doing it," Gerhart wrote. "I will make you the laughing stock of the Senate if I don't hear that this bill will be heard and passed. We will dig into your past, yoru (sic) family, your associates and once we start on you there will be no end to it. This is a promise."
Brannan turned the threat over to the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation. But Gerhart was undeterred. He held a Capitol news conference where -- among other things -- he offered up rumors of Branan's infidelity.
"Political pain and embarrassment will be necessary if the citizens expect to regain control of this Senate down here from the State Chamber of Commerce and special interests," Gerhart declared. "The time for 'nice' behavior is over with."
For his part, Branan called Gerhart a bully and denied he had been unfaithful. He also told the Oklahoman he considered HB 1412 "a solution to a problem that doesn't exist" and a "fringe conspiracy theory that is frankly just bad public policy. Part of my job (as committee chair) is to keep that stuff from happening."
Kern called Gerhart's comments "pathetic," but she saved scorn for Branan as well.
"Unfortunately, it appears that Sen. Branan did not check too much into the bill, or he would have learned that this is a very real problem that threatens our personal property rights as well as the sovereignty of our nation," she said.
The bottom line? Whether serious issues (like taxes) or frivolous issues (like Agenda 21), the fault lines within the Republican Legislature are real.
Buckle up -- the session's final seven weeks look to be a wild ride.
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