POSTED ON MAY 5, 2010:
No Bread, Just Circuses
In the midst of a budget crisis, the Legislature's legerdemain is old hat
I gave thanks last week for Arizona, its embrace of nativism and bigotry finally relieving our fair state of its all-too-familiar, starring role as the butt of late night television's jokes and scorn.
Alas, my relief was short-lived.
Even before a lawsuit over Arizona's new immigration law could be filed, Oklahoma's House reclaimed its ignominy -- lapsing into heated debate over whether to force an on-the-record vote on a resolution commemorating the National Day of Prayer.
It was a microcosm of a session gone bad, precious time that could have been spent resolving the state's real problems -- crumbling highways, overcrowded prisons, under-financed schools -- squandered as lawmakers jockey for political advantage.
How poisonous is the atmosphere?
Bad enough that it's no longer uncommon to hear legislators say they're thinking of quitting because they see so little hope for serious, honest debate, much less actual compromise that could help build a more prosperous state and lift us from the bottom of almost every socioeconomic measure.
All too often ideology rules, but it's not necessarily what's in the best interests of most Oklahomans.
A costly way to do business.
At a time when the state faces a $500 million to $800 million hole in next year's budget -- when every penny really counts -- the legislative majority can't resist pandering to the electorate's noisiest segments by passing one constitutionally dubious measure after another.
They vote to crack down on undocumented workers, tighten restrictions on abortion and mandate Bible teaching in public schools, knowing full well that these matters are so contentious that they are guaranteed to trigger a flurry of lawsuits the state must defend.
Who ends up paying the legal tab? The taxpayers.
More often than not, it's money wasted.
Think Haskell County. Even though cooler heads warned against it, religious zealots -- including county commissioners -- insisted on locating a Ten Commandments monument on the courthouse lawn in Stigler. It was promptly challenged in court as an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.
The Tenth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals not only ordered the monument removed, but also slapped the county with the legal bill for those who mounted the challenge. The tab is still being totaled, but there's no doubt who's on the hook for the payment -- the county's taxpayers.
Think House Bill 1804, the immigration reform measure approved in 2007. It, too, was challenged in federal court. A three-judge federal panel ruled earlier this year that two provisions of the law were unenforceable and returned the case to federal district court in Oklahoma City where a judge will decide whether to make her 2008 preliminary injunction against the law permanent.
Think abortion. Two years ago, with a majority in both houses for the first time, Republicans (with the help of some Democrats) rammed through some of the nation's most restrictive anti-abortion language.
Among the requirements: Women -- even victims of rape and incest -- must first undergo ultrasound during which the doctor or technician is required to position the monitor so that the woman can see it and be described to the fetus's organs, heart and limbs.
The restrictions were successfully challenged in court, one case overturned when a judge ruled the law violated the state Constitution's requirement that bills deal with a single subject.
This year, lawmakers broke the anti-abortion measures into a half-dozen or so separate bills in an attempt to address the court's rulings. Already, the Center for Reproductive Rights has filed suit challenging some of the new laws.
It's not clear how much it has cost the state so far to defend the immigration and abortion lawsuits. The costs, for the most part, are absorbed by the attorney general's regular budget and cases aren't logged like a private law firm that bills by the hour.
This much we know: At the Legislature's request, the attorney general's office hired special outside counsel to defend two of the 2008 anti-abortion laws. The contracts cost the taxpayers $75,000 for one case and $15,000 for the other.
"And those were very simple lawsuits," said Tamya Cox, program director and legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma. "This upcoming lawsuit, it's going to be more complex."
And even more costly.
So why are lawmakers so willing to risk flushing the taxpayers' precious money down the lawsuit toilet?
The fact is, some legislators are so convinced of their own righteousness that they simply must do all they can to reshape Oklahoma in their own image. If the courts don't see it their way, then, activist judges are to blame -- and they must be replaced. (Remember: state Reps. Mike Ritze, R-Broken Arrow, and Mike Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City, tinkered this session with legislation aimed at usurping judicial power. Do they understand separation of powers?)
Others, including some legislative leaders, embrace these constitutionally dubious measures as good old-fashioned horse-trading that secures the zealots' votes on most other legislation. Further, they view it as good politics: It fires up the faithful, in this case social conservatives that have proven such a key component in Oklahoma becoming the reddest state in the union.
Ironically, the passage of these controversial measures -- and the legal challenges they spawn -- also serve to create something of a Full Employment Act for lawyers, a group loathed by corporatist Republicans that control both houses of the Legislature.
At least Attorney General Drew Edmondson displayed common sense when he declined to file a lawsuit over the new federal health care reform. More than a dozen states already are tilting at that windmill.
Oklahoma taxpayers can't afford any more elective lawsuits -- especially those that, truth be told, are primarily about the pursuit of political advantage.
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