POSTED ON NOVEMBER 17, 2010:
Newly elected GOP officials need to step up to the task and not play chicken with the issues
In the first full week since the Republican electoral tidal wave, there were two encouraging developments, an intriguing one and a particularly disquieting one.
The best news for Oklahoma taxpayers is that state lawmakers reiterated plans to undertake a thorough review of the state's runaway corporate welfare system.
The Capitol rumor mill was spinning recently that GOP powers-that-be quashed the interim study, fearful that opening up even some of the overall $5.8 billion in tax breaks to scrutiny could jeopardize some big business sacred cows.
New House Speaker Pro Tem Jeff Hickman, R-Dacoma, reported in an e-mail that he is working to schedule the interim study with state Sen. Mike Mazzei, R-Tulsa, a longtime proponent of the review. An aide to Mazzei confirmed the study is alive-and-well.
This won't be an easy subject for the GOP-dominated Legislature and newly-elected Republican governor to tackle. Corporate tax breaks have exploded in the six years since the GOP took over the House, often because beneficiaries tend also to be major campaign donors.
Still, lawmakers are facing as much as a $1 billion budget hole in the next fiscal year. They have little choice but to seriously review the handouts -- an estimated $2 billion of which never created a single job.
The second best news came from Gov.-elect Mary Fallin.
Speaking to reporters after a brief public introduction of her transition team co-chairs, Devon Energy Chairman Larry Nichols and outgoing state Senate President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee, Fallin pledged she would schedule far more news conferences than her predecessor.
Sadly, that might not be saying much. Democratic incumbent Brad Henry set the lowest bar in modern times, typically deigning to open himself up to reporters' questions only as he wrapped up tightly-scripted, dog-and-pony shows called to announce some initiative aimed at burnishing the governor's image.
Historically, Oklahoma governors met weekly -- for years, in fact, it was twice weekly -- with journalists, throwing open the floor to any and all questions. The give-and-take, back-and-forth was an excellent way to keep taxpayers abreast of the major issues confronting state government, as well as the chief executive's priorities and thinking.
Never has civic engagement been more crucial. The state is facing incredibly difficult challenges -- especially when it comes to funding vital services and rebuilding a crumbling infrastructure. A governor willing to answer questions not only helps bring rank-and-file Oklahomans up to speed, but also helps upgrade the political dialogue.
Gov.-elect Fallin has promised to do so.
The intriguing news -- at least potentially -- is that two state Senate seats soon will be up for grabs.
The GOP picked up six seats in the recent general election, giving it a commanding 32-16 advantage. But two Republican seats soon will be vacated -- Edmond Sen. Todd Lamb recently was elected lieutenant governor and Oklahoma City Sen. Jim Reynolds was elected Cleveland County treasurer.
Lamb's district has been solidly Republican for generations, but Reynolds was nearly defeated for re-election two years ago. Could either provide reeling Democrats an opportunity to stem the GOP tide?
This year's election was an anti-Obama wave, especially in Oklahoma. A triple axe murderer with an "R" behind his name could have won.
But, other than this year, Democrats have fared better in recent elections in the high-growth, north Oklahoma City-Edmond region that Lamb represents, suggesting it is turning purple -- less knee-jerk favorable to red (Republican) and unfavorable to blue (Democrat).
Two years ago, for example, Democrats Jim Roth, seeking re-election to the state Corporation Commission, and Andrew Rice, battling incumbent U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, both ran stronger than history would have predicted in the area.
Lamb is sworn in as lieutenant governor in January. Republicans already are lining up to run. Will Democrats field a strong candidate?
Reynolds nearly was knocked off by a famous name -- David Boren. No, not the University of Oklahoma president, former U.S. senator and governor. Were many voters simply fooled, was Reynolds less popular than many incumbents or is the electoral landscape changing in the district?
Both parties have time to strategize on this race. Reynolds doesn't become Cleveland County treasurer until July 1 -- the term runs on a July 1-June 30 fiscal year. So he will finish his 11th session in the state Senate this spring before assuming his new post.
The disquieting news is that Gov.-elect Fallin and incoming Attorney General Scott Pruitt both are signaling they may not be keen on continuing the state's pollution lawsuit against the poultry industry.
I'm not here to argue the specifics of the case -- though it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that two of the state's aquatic treasures, Lake Tenkiller and the Illinois River, are far from the pristine, see-clear-to-the-bottom wonders they were in the era before chicken ranching exploded in eastern Oklahoma.
The fact is, poultry producers were significant players in the 2010 campaign. They helped knock their chief nemesis, current Attorney General Drew Edmondson, out in the Democratic primary. Like chicken litter-turned-fertilizer, they spread their campaign dollars around to Fallin, Pruitt and Democratic gubernatorial nominee Jari Askins.
Politics aside, water is the key natural resource. Nothing else comes close. And Oklahoma is blessed not only in abundance, but also in quality. Both are imperiled.
As the federal court lawsuit against the poultry industry suggests, water quality no longer can be taken for granted in Oklahoma. As recent federal court skirmishes in Oklahoma City and Muskogee reveal, others -- particularly Texas -- are salivating over the prospect of tapping into Oklahoma's bounty.
We still don't know how much water Oklahoma will need to meet future growth. A comprehensive statewide water plan is still being formulated. But this much is certain: we can't be too careful about conserving and protecting what will be to the 21st Century what oil was to the 20th Century.
The best strategy, at least short-term? Let the poultry case play out. Keep the moratorium on out-of-state water sales in place. And complete the statewide water plan. Then let's dispassionately talk specifics -- as far removed from heated election rhetoric and eye-popping campaign contributions as possible.
-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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