POSTED ON MAY 26, 2010:
Extracting the Woolly Boogers
State lawmakers scramble to sort through proposed budget for pests and other pesky parasites
Ghosts, Gremlins, Viruses. The tiniest details in a $6.676 billion spending blueprint can suddenly stall the legislative process, fraying tempers, fracturing coalitions and threatening budgetary chaos for state agencies.
You could almost hear a collective sigh of relief at the state Capitol last week when the governor and legislative leaders confirmed they had reached a budget accord.
Lawmakers still had six working days -- they took the weekend off -- before the session's mandated end, seemingly plenty of time to both wrap up the people's business before Memorial Day weekend and avoid a forced return next month for a special session.
Not so fast.
When a budget agreement -- negotiated behind closed doors by a handful of key legislators and state officials -- gets dumped into the laps of 101 state representatives and 48 senators at the last minute, as it almost always does, anything can happen.
The tiniest details in a $6.676 billion spending blueprint can suddenly stall the legislative process, fraying tempers, fracturing coalitions and threatening budgetary chaos for state agencies.
As they review the specifics, some lawmakers will become appalled over the spending priorities. Others will become dismayed that cuts weren't deeper. But what most often threatens to derail the budget accord is woolly boogers.
What? You've never heard of woolly boogers?
We're not talking about some sheep-attacking parasite or Department of Agriculture eradication program.
Woolly boogers are little surprises that cunning lawmakers slip into the often verbose and confusing language of bills, hoping they escape notice -- and make it into law -- in the chaos leading up to Friday's 5pm session deadline.
"That's when everything gets thrown out there," said state Rep. Mike Brown, a Tahlequah Democrat and House minority floor leader. "You've got to be on your toes."
Sometimes they're financial incentives -- "earmarks" in congressional parlance -- aimed at winning votes for the budget accord and currying favor with special interests.
A favorite strategy is to tuck these gifts of taxpayers' money into broader spending bills, leaving lawmakers with an unappetizing choice: They can vote against obvious pork or for funding of a vital state agency, such as human services, commerce or agriculture.
Rep. David Dank, for one, recalls being appalled last year when he learned that, despite increasing worries over state revenues, $200,000 was slipped into one spending bill to support a Guthrie rodeo. The Oklahoma City Republican voted against the measure because of the rodeo gift, but it passed anyway.
Other times woolly boogers are proposals that stalled as stand-alone legislation earlier in the session because they became so controversial.
Just last week, for example, Rep. Randy Terrill and Sen. Anthony Sykes, both Moore Republicans, revived a much-debated proposal to keep secret the birth dates of current and former public employees.
They tucked the ban into a House bill that would make public dashboard camera recordings from state Highway Patrol units, with some exceptions.
Earlier in the session, it appeared the Oklahoma Press Association and other news media had successfully thwarted attempts to seal the birth dates of government workers, arguing the public has a right to know who is on the taxpayers' payroll.
News outlets routinely seek to cross-reference birth dates with other records to confirm identities and ensure accurate reporting. It's important, for example, to know whether the child welfare worker Joe Blow is the same Joe Blow convicted earlier of child endangerment.
There were no press releases trumpeting that the birth date ban would be added to the dashboard camera bill. It came to light because those who care about open records were watching closely to see whether it would be slipped without fanfare into other legislation.
The truth is, it's all but impossible for legislators to read every line of the dozens of bills they will consider in the session's final hours.
So, groups of lawmakers with common interests join forces, divvying up the reading assignments in an attempt to flag the most egregious earmarks and most dangerous public policy proposals.
In the House, one group includes Republicans Dank, John Wright of Broken Arrow and Mike Reynolds of Oklahoma City. In the Senate, Democrats review proposals by areas of expertise -- for example, Sen. Jay Paul Gumm of Durant studies those involving economic development and Sen. Kenneth Corn of Howe focuses on corrections.
It doesn't take very many unhappy legislators to throw a monkey wrench into the process in the final hours, especially since it takes a two-thirds majority in both houses to ensure that money included in budget bills is available to state agencies when the new fiscal year begins July 1 (otherwise, it's not available until late August).
It's not difficult to imagine that some ultra-conservative lawmakers will conclude the budget accord didn't do nearly enough to cut what they regard as a still-bloated state government. They could slow the process -- "play out the clock," as one senator put it -- to the point where the 5pm Friday deadline arrives without all the budget bills being heard. A special session would then be required -- and the budget blueprint would be in peril.
It's often not pretty when the legislative sausage-making kicks into high gear. What will be included in the final ingredients this year? Stay tuned.
-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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