POSTED ON DECEMBER 30, 2009:
Another Year Wasted
The Legislative agenda looks as bleak in 2010 as it did in 2009
So long, 2009.
You won't be long lamented.
The year began with top state leaders reading from the same, bipartisan script:
All is well. No need to panic. We're better off than most states. This isn't nearly as bad as the budget crisis Gov. Brad Henry inherited when he took office in 2003.
The year ended with top state leaders, still in unison, reading different bipartisan lines:
This is the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Tax cuts we championed ($770 million in lost revenue) had nothing to do with our budget crunch. We all live blissfully in a state of denial, refusing to concede Oklahoma is worse off than other states -- National Conference of State Legislatures' research, be damned.
They were warned. There were clear signs Oklahoma's boom was about to go bust--again. But they didn't listen. They didn't pay the state's bills (Sardis Lake, for starters), they didn't cut spending and they pandered with tax cuts, revenue sorely needed now.
Not even Dave Ramsey could save us from such myopic leadership.
Didn't Republicans always promise to run state government like a business, if they ever wrested legislative control from Democrats? Now that they have it--a 61-40 edge in the House, 26-22 in the Senate--what did they do? They played political games, expending inordinate time and energy on one fool's errand after another.
Too harsh? Harken back to the not-so-glorious days of 2009 with this (hardly exhaustive) list of legislative follies:
First, thanks to rookie Rep. Mike Ritze, R-Broken Arrow, lawmakers wrestled with whether to allow a Ten Commandments monument to be erected on the Capitol grounds. The biblical precepts are wonderful when hidden in your heart and embraced as core principles, but as a legislative initiative, are they more important than helping secure health coverage for more than 600,000 uninsured children in Oklahoma?
Further, is the almost certain court battle over the monument's location on public property--a classic church-state separation issue--going to be worth the expense, especially given projections that Oklahoma could have $1 billion less to spend next year because of the miserable economy?
Second, state lawmakers deep-sixed a proposal to require insurance companies to cover treatment for children with autism. Instead, legislators feigned concern about the growing problem (about 1 in 100 children now is diagnosed with the malady) by enacting legislation aimed at increasing the number of health care professionals in Oklahoma with expertise in treating the malady.
Brilliant! More treatment will be available for those who can't afford it. And what is likely to become of those newly-minted autism experts, trained at state taxpayer expense? Is it logical to assume they could end up practicing in other states that demand insurance companies to cover treatment for autism?
Third, not content that the number of abortions is declining, or that Oklahoma has some of the most restrictive abortion laws on the books? Religious zealots stampeded the Legislature into ordering that women undergoing the procedure face a 10-page battery of personal questions--the answers to which will be posted on the Internet.
The patient won't be named or her hometown identified, but how difficult would it be to put two-and-two together in some of the state's more rural, sparsely populated areas? Can you say intimidation?
Predictably, this matter already has the state's legal meter running. A state district judge blocked the law from going into effect Nov. 1. Earlier this month, a second judge extended the delay until at least February.
In addition, the reporting requirement would cost the state an estimated $281,285 in start-up costs and another $256,285 annually--not much when compared to state budgets in the $6 billion-$7 billion range.
Fourth, most state lawmakers proved once again they never met a corporate welfare scheme they didn't like. This year they extended existing gross production tax rebates and exemptions until 2012--an estimated $100 million giveaway.
Even Tulsa's George Kaiser, controlling shareholder of Kaiser-Francis Oil Co., publicly opposed the rebates and exemptions that already had cost the state an estimated $339 million in revenue. Rather than give the money back to oil and gas companies, Kaiser suggested using it to match Medicaid federal funds or improve teacher salaries.
Surely the decision to extend the rebates/exemptions wasn't influenced by campaign contributions--$660,900 from Chesapeake Energy alone to legislative campaigns between 2002-08--was it?
Legislative priorities, I suppose, are in the eyes of the beholder. But shouldn't state leaders be focused more on the plight on thousands of Oklahoma seniors--enduring a harsh winter without hot meals provided through the senior nutrition programs, a casualty of budget cutting--than on their personal, social-engineering goals?
Do we really care that Rep. Sally Kern, R-Oklahoma City, thinks gays and lesbians are greater threats to America than terrorists, that the nation's economic problems are the result of same-sex marriage and "other forms of debauchery" or that President Obama was attempting to indoctrinate America's school children with a do-better, work-harder message piped into the classroom?
Unfortunately, the silliness shows no signs of abating in 2010.
Kern already has introduced legislation for the session beginning Feb. 1 that would restrict the use of incompatibility as grounds for divorce.
And Ritze and Rep. Mike Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City--unhappy with recent judicial rulings that did not meet their ultra-conservative views of justice--seem bent on obliterating the constitutional separation of powers. They're pursuing a plan that would give the Legislature greater authority to remove judges and require judges adhere strictly to jury-imposed sentences. Given its track record, how do you like the idea of giving the Legislature more power?
Sad to say: 2010 isn't even here, but it already feels way too much like 2009.
-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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