POSTED ON MARCH 24, 2010:
To Half and Half Naught
With the current legislative session at the midpoint, what's been going on?
State lawmakers effectively took last week off for spring break. They dutifully showed up, of course, to collect their per diem. But their daily conclaves generally lasted only about half an hour -- much of that time was spent introducing children, grandchildren and other family members who took advantage of the school holiday to visit the Capitol.
With the legislative calendar in neutral, it seemed an opportune moment to reflect on the session so far. I have good news and bad news. The good news: It's almost half over. The bad news: Plenty of time remains for mischief.
A cheap shot? No. I am not a government hater. And I can't abide those who dismiss the Legislature as a den of crooks and clowns. But I can tell you that I've heard more than a few Capitol insiders muse that this would be an excellent year to negotiate a budget and go home -- ASAP.
It reminds me of the old gag about the Texas Legislature: The republic would be safer if lawmakers were in session for two days every 140 years, rather than for 140 days every two years.
The fact is, it's not much fun being a lawmaker at a time when agency budgets and state services are being pared to the bone. Moods are often sour. Tempers are shorter than usual. There's not as much patience for political gamesmanship and even less for unbridled hypocrisy.
Three under-reported items help illustrate the good, the bad and the ugly of this legislative session.
The good: It didn't attract much media attention, but one of the Legislature's most conservative members, Republican Rep. Jason Murphey, recently donated $8,241 from his legislative salary to Crossroads, An Open Door For Life Choices Inc., in his hometown of Guthrie.
It's an annual gesture for the second-term state representative. He doesn't believe Oklahoma's lawmakers should be among the nation's highest-paid part-time legislators, earning double the regional average. Further, his donation underscores his commitment to pro-life services such as Crossroads, which provides faith-based, pro-life counseling and support services to expectant mothers.
The amount he donated reflects the difference in legislative pay and per capita wages in Oklahoma at the time he was elected. He vows to continue making the donation until legislative salaries are adjusted.
Some cynics, no doubt, will dismiss Murphey's action as a publicity stunt, but whether you agree or disagree with it -- or his anti-abortion beliefs -- he deserves credit for doing something far too many political peacocks won't: He puts his money where his mouth is.
The bad: It's remarkable how many self-proclaimed pro-life legislators cast "aye" votes on House Bill 3202, a measure ostensibly aimed at protecting ranchers' rights to perform traditional animal husbandry practices -- without the expense of hiring a veterinarian.
What does animal husbandry have to do with abortion?
The link is narcotics -- specifically, prescription drugs that under current law can be dispensed only by licensed medical experts, such as veterinarians. Some of the narcotics are designed to terminate pregnancies. Even though they are produced for livestock, they are coveted on the black market for human use -- so-called "chemical coat hangers."
State veterinarians fear that loosening the standards on obtaining and using the narcotics could unleash a tsunami of dangerous drugs, imperiling the health of Oklahomans. Veterinarians and other licensed medical professionals say that they are required to keep the drugs under lock-and-key and account for their use -- but lay practitioners of animal husbandry wouldn't be held to the same standards, increasing the likelihood of theft or black market sales.
Already, some veterinarians have said they've been approached by clients who want the drugs -- not for their livestock, but to terminate unwanted human pregnancies.
Of course, some will argue that vets are simply protecting their financial interests. If ranchers can treat their own livestock, many won't absorb the expense of hiring a veterinarian, especially for routine procedures.
The Oklahoma Legislature, though, is dominated by anti-abortion members. There is a never-ending stream of proposed legislation aimed -- ultimately -- at banning abortions altogether. Mere mention of RU-486 causes some members to break out in the political equivalent of hives.
Yet, 75 of the 101 House members recently approved HB 3202 -- which could make pregnancy-terminating drugs more easily available?
Could it be that for many legislators, pro-life is a campaign slogan, not a guiding principle? Could it be they hope their anti-abortion constituents won't take note of this vote -- encouraged by one of the state's most potent special interests, the Farm Bureau?
The ugly: That Oklahoma was the reddest, most Republican state in the nation in 2008 is well documented. So is the fact that Barack Obama lost all of the state's 77 counties, including those in the once-reliably Democratic region in southeastern Oklahoma known as Little Dixie.
It's also hardly a secret that some Oklahomans despise the Democratic president simply because he's African American.
Obama's election and Oklahoma's hard right turn has ramped up anti-federal government fervor in the state Legislature, which almost weekly embraces some wacky 10th Amendment measure aimed at asserting states' rights (code in the old South for institutionalized racism).
So perhaps you can imagine why state Rep. Mike Shelton, D-Oklahoma City, himself African American, took umbrage when Obama's portrait hanging in the House chamber was surreptitiously moved from the traditional location of presidential portraits.
Under pressure from House Speaker Chris Benge, rookie state Rep. Lewis Moore, R-Arcadia, fessed up to the prank -- but claimed he switched Obama's portrait with Gov. Brad Henry's as a joke. "I apologize," Moore said, "if my intent was misinterpreted."
Moore insists he respects the office of president, but disagrees with Obama's policies -- especially on his health care reform, "his sole motivation for moving the photo," according to the Associated Press.
So it was all just a harmless joke? Let me ask this: Would Moore have moved George W. Bush's portrait to -- say -- demonstrate his opposition to the first round of Wall Street bailouts? I doubt it. (Shelton, by the way, admitted to removing former GOP House Speaker Lance Cargill's portrait in retaliation.)
Lighten up, some will say. But if you truly respect the office of president, you don't engage in towel-snapping, frat-boy pranks, especially in a legislative session with more than the usual stresses and short tempers.
This is the People's House, not Animal House.
-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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