POSTED ON AUGUST 25, 2010:
Through the Looking Glass, Partly
Hoping against hope, that legislators make government a public, transparent process
Publicity stunt or principle?
The question is apropos after two state representatives recently unveiled a 10-point plan aimed at overhauling Oklahoma's Byzantine legislative process that all-too-often seems devoid of transparency and integrity.
Republican Reps. Randy Terrill of Moore and Mike Christian of Oklahoma City produced a strong package that includes one of the most important reforms imaginable -- requiring the House to adhere to the state Open Records Act, just like almost every other government body in Oklahoma.
The issue here isn't the message -- it's the messengers.
The two beleaguered lawmakers were high-profile targets this summer of a public corruption probe by the Oklahoma County district attorney. Although Christian no longer is a subject of the investigation, Terrill still is.
This, on top of Terrill's already mixed reputation that ranges from the state's demagogue-in-chief -- for his vitriolic, anti-illegal immigration screeds -- to very public problems with his personal and political finances.
What could be better to bleach away such stains than to crusade for honest, open government and against the Legislature's status quo?
It's touching how many good government proposals are hatched between sessions -- often just before an election. Nearly all, of course, die without fanfare once the voting is over. Lawmakers have more important work to do, don't you know?
There is reason to hope, however, that talk of a new era of openness and transparency may be more than lip service when the Oklahoma Legislature reconvenes next year.
Incoming Speaker Kris Steele is a good-hearted, decent man, a Methodist minister whose legislative career has been devoted to saving the day for some of Oklahoma's poorest, least healthy children -- real compassionate conservatism.
In the often less-than-appetizing sausage-making that is legislating, Steele hasn't avoided being splattered, of course. He won the enmity of parents with autistic children, for example, when he bowed to legislative leadership's refusal to require insurance companies to cover the malady.
But there is more than enough evidence already to suggest that Steele's tenure as speaker could be a radical improvement over the last three Republican speakers -- Todd Hiett, Lance Cargill and Chris Benge.
Even before Terrill and Christian unveiled their program, Steele pledged to end the House practice of allowing votes on bills without a 24-hour waiting period during the session's final two days -- an invitation for nefariousness.
He also has signaled that he wants to take a hard look at requiring conference committees -- where lawmakers from both houses iron out differences between similar pieces of legislation -- to actually meet, in public, before signing off on the final language of bills.
State Rep. Jason Murphey of Guthrie, for one, hailed the proposals as "significant," expressing the belief they could have "far-reaching impact."
Like Steele, Murphey is a Republican, but don't dismiss his comments as pure partisan back-slapping. Murphey has real standing on these matters having frequently prodded his GOP leaders, in public, to shake up the status quo and make the legislative process more transparent.
As he put it in a recent column sent to his district's newspapers, "it is my belief that this (Steele's proposals) is a major crack in the Berlin Wall of legislative secrecy that will significantly accelerate the pace toward true transparency and openness."
If this all sounds like so much inside baseball, don't be fooled. The chicanery in the session's final days is real: Special deals are often cut, slipped unnoticed into long, murky measures that members don't have time to read or analyze. It can be weeks or months, if not longer, before the so-called "woolly boogers" are discovered.
In fact, one of those late-hour deals is at the heart of the investigation that focused on Terrill, Christian and Democratic Sen. Debbe Leftwich of Oklahoma City. The trio was suspected to have conspired to create a high-paying job at the State Medical Examiner's office for Leftwich in exchange for her promise not to seek re-election -- creating an opening for Christian to move to the upper chamber.
At session's end, Leftwich announced she would not run again. Almost immediately, Christian unveiled his candidacy for the south Oklahoma City seat. It wasn't long, however, before the district attorney confirmed he was investigating the matter. Christian quickly changed plans, opting to seek re-election to his House seat instead. And Gov. Brad Henry vetoed the legislation that included the provision creating the high-paying job.
For the record, both Terrill and Leftwich have denied any wrongdoing.
The Legislature cleverly exempted itself from the state's Open Meeting and Open Records laws years ago, allowing it to carry out much of its business, with impunity, under a veil of secrecy that keeps Oklahoma taxpayers from knowing the unvarnished truth about decision-making at the Capitol.
Almost nothing, it seems, is insignificant enough to prevent legislative leaders from invoking the exemption. In the last session, for example, Speaker Benge refused to release video that purportedly showed state lawmakers switching portraits of President Obama and Gov. Henry -- Animal House hijinks that sparked a brief dust-up between lawmakers supportive of and opposed to the nation's first president of African-American descent.
Terrill's central role in the proposed 10-point government transparency measure is more proof that irony is rarely in short supply in the state Legislature. Terrill spent much of the last session attempting to block public access to autopsy reports and government employees' birth dates in personnel files.
Publicity stunt or principle?
We won't know for sure until after the next legislative session. By then, we will know how hard Terrill and Christian (assuming they are re-elected) -- even Steele -- worked behind the scenes to get their colleagues to do something they almost certainly don't want to do. Stay tuned.
-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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