POSTED ON FEBRUARY 15, 2012:
The Good, The Bad, The Ugly
Day one: Oklahoma legislation grabs a fistful
The first day of a legislative session often reminds me of the first day of school: Lots of backslapping and hugs and catching-up. Little work. Joviality reigns supreme.
When Oklahoma's House of Representatives gaveled itself back to life last week, however, the good vibes of hope and possibility lasted all of about five minutes.
Or just about long enough for the Republicans' far-right faction of social conservatives to aim its cannon across House Speaker Kris Steele's bow and light the fuse.
What is traditionally a formality -- approving a monthly postage stipend for each member -- became a vehicle for Steele's detractors to send him a message that his final session as speaker is likely to be anything but smooth sailing.
There were sufficient votes to ratify the housekeeping measures, of course. But if you're a speaker pursuing an ambitious agenda that includes serious criminal justice reform, there were an alarming number of red lights -- "no" votes -- on the electronic scoreboard.
Delicious irony: The dust-up occurred shortly after a newly formed, 76-member legislative prayer caucus gathered with about 200 others in the second-floor Capitol rotunda to beseech the Almighty for a session filled with wisdom and unity.
Week one instead gave us the legislative equivalent of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly:
The Good: Some lawmakers seem genuinely serious about ending the revolving door in which term-limited or defeated legislators all-too-routinely latch onto high-paying government jobs after they leave office.
A House committee last week wasted no time in approving House Joint Resolution 1071 that -- if approved by the full House and Senate -- would give voters the opportunity to approve a constitutional ban on the insidious practice.
Insidious? Consider this:
Most of the ex-Republican lawmakers who slipped recently into other government jobs campaigned on smaller-government, citizen-legislator rhetoric. They vowed to sacrifice their personal bottom lines for the greater good, spend a few years pruning government down to size, then return as quickly as possible to the private sector.
Instead, they often nab higher-paying state agency jobs that ramp up their retirement packages (which are based on the last three years of work prior to retirement).
Can't you just imagine the quid pro quo? Senator X signals that he or she can help make an agency's fiscal dreams come during the legislative session, if only said agency can create a soft-landing for the term-limited lawmaker.
There's supposed to be a two-year cooling off period, but ex-lawmakers and state agencies take advantage of a loophole that permits the hiring -- if the former legislators' salaries are paid with private or federal funds, not state-appropriated dollars.
It's a scam that's gone on far too long, first when Democrats controlled the levers of state power and now that Republicans rule. And it reeks, undermining public confidence in the political system.
"Legislative ethics" may no longer be an oxymoron.
The Bad: Abortion politics were cynically played on the session's very first day when a committee approved -- and sent to the full Senate -- a measure that would define "personhood" as starting at conception.
This is essentially the same puritanical nonsense that voters in fire-engine-red, ultra-conservative Mississippi rejected last year.
Senate Bill 1433 is authored by Sen. Brian Crain, R-Tulsa, one of the Senate's brightest minds and nicest people. He is strongly conservative, yes, but he's not a card-carrying member of the Wingnut Nation. And therein lies the problem.
The zealots are making life miserable for legislative conservatives who don't view America as they do --- as a godless bastion of secular humanism (a modern Sodom and Gomorrah?) that needs to be returned to Christian dominance.
Like several incumbent GOP lawmakers, Crain likely will face a challenge from his right flank -- no small concern in that zealots tend to be the most enthusiastic, hard-core voters, often wielding outsize influence in low-visibility primaries that too many voters overlook.
If anyone thinks they can inoculate themselves against the rabid theocrats by embracing "personhood," they best think again. One bill will not a content theocrat make.
Worse, it will risk enraging thinking voters who know this measure could be used to outlaw some currently legal forms of contraception or to undertake witch-hunts against scientists and medical researchers.
If the hard-right crowd insists on pursuing this measure, then it's time to give serious consideration to Sen. Constance Johnston's point-making "proposal" to give the same rights and benefits to spermatozoa.
According to the Oklahoma City Democrat's amendment, "Any action in which a man ejaculates or otherwise deposits semen anywhere but in a woman's vagina shall be interpreted and construed as an action against an unborn child."
Why is it the ultra-right crowd bleats incessantly about the threat of government intrusion, yet insists on sticking its noses into private lives, bedrooms and doctor's offices?
The Ugly: Gov. Mary Fallin's income tax elimination scheme undoubtedly offers short-term political appeal, but in reality is nothing more than Voodoo Economics, Redux.
Where is David Stockman when you need him? We tried this fairy tale theory -- that cutting taxes will increase revenues -- previously and it was a spectacular failure.
Yet, Fallin is nothing if not the consummate toady of the state's wealthiest one percent, whose unabashed greed fuels a never-ending quest to impose a reverse Robin Hood system that shifts more of the tax burden to those who can least afford it.
With a straight face, the governor proposed blasting a $1 billion hole in state revenues -- with more cuts to come -- at the same time she vows, for example, to fix all the state's substandard bridges.
She also displayed breathtaking audacity in ridiculing federal spending: At the same time she urged a federal balanced budget amendment, she suggested the state borrow -- borrow! -- $50 million for routine Capitol maintenance and improvements.
Whatever happened to Republican devotion to pay-as-you-go?
The train-wreck that Fallin proposes won't fully be understood until long after she's gone, even if she wins a second term. But once rank-and-file taxpayers come to realize what it means for schools, roads and child welfare, there will be hell to pay.
And history will not treat this governor kindly.
--Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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