POSTED ON APRIL 4, 2012:
What's to Hide?
Shine a light, see 'em scatter
My friend Norm Rourke is the Howard Beale of Beggs.
You remember Beale, don't you? He was the veteran TV news anchor (played by Peter Finch) in the classic 1976 movie Network.
In the midst of economic doldrums and Cold War tensions, Beale implored his viewers to get out of their chairs, lean out their windows and shout at the top of their lungs: "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore."
So far as I know, Norm isn't screaming out his window, from his front porch or alongside an Okmulgee County highway. But this much is certain: he isn't suffering silently as he monitors Oklahoma's -- and the nation's -- polarized politics.
Norm's preferred attire these days is a t-shirt that declares: Throw the bums out! And he is forever writing letters-to-the-editor excoriating the elected class and imploring readers to join his clean-sweep campaign.
I must confess I went through a similarly pissed-off, unapologetically cynical phase in the 1990s where I voted against all incumbents.
In 2012, however, I adhere to a significantly more nuanced approach: A no-incumbents policy would penalize hard-working, honorable elected officials from both parties -- and ultimately end up depriving Oklahomans of the kind of leaders we claim to want.
Consider these shameful actions:
-- State lawmakers refused to abide by the same open records/open meetings laws they impose on other public bodies.
Speaker Kris Steele didn't even permit a vote by the full House on Guthrie Rep. Jason Murphey's HB 1085, effectively taking the position it would be a waste of time since the measure faced overwhelming Senate opposition.
So? If you're committed to government transparency, put it to a vote and dare lawmakers -- on the record -- to vote against it.
Well, of course ... therein lies the problem.
Some legislators with stroke clearly don't want to end this exemption that enables them -- whenever the spirit moves -- to slip behind closed doors to cut deals, some of which might not find favor with the public.
And they damn sure don't want to be forced to vote on the record against legislation that shines a spotlight on the sausage-making process.
Or against a proposal the general public loves -- 85 percent of likely voters in a recent Sooner Poll endorsed the idea of the Legislature being subject to the state's open records and open meetings law.
Here's a simple question: What's to hide? Why the hypocrisy from lawmakers who bleat endlessly about transparency and government accountability?
There is simply no excuse for Oklahoma to be one of the few states in the nation whose legislature is exempt from open records and open meetings laws.
-- The Oklahoma House also killed a new code of ethics hammered out in response to the bribery charge filed against state Rep. Randy Terrill, R-Moore.
Among the hard-nosed, revolutionary (can you spell i-r-o-n-y?) requirements: that lawmakers conduct themselves in a professional manner, disclose any personal or private interest in pending legislation, and respect and comply with the law.
Oh, the humanity!
Those who helped torpedo HR 1052 complained they were denied the opportunity to further review and debate what they regarded as vague and ambiguous proposals.
Sure ... much of the measure probably could be dismissed as window dressing, a public relations shell game designed to give voters the impression that lawmakers were policing themselves when in fact nothing substantial would change.
In this case, though, something would have been better than nothing. It's rare that lawmakers approve the perfect piece of legislation the first time around. What often happens is they revisit the subject in subsequent sessions, fixing unintended consequences and other errors.
In politics especially, perception is reality. And the perception is that lawmakers punted, refusing to acknowledge ethics problems that almost anyone on Main Street could plainly see.
-- Lest you think the venality is limited to the state House, consider this: The Senate killed a provision that would require candidates for public office to submit to drug testing.
This is another example of elected officials exempting themselves from standards they want to impose on those without power.
The House, in an 82-6 vote, approved the drug-testing provision for office-seekers as part of HB 2388, a bill that would impose a drug-testing requirement on those applying for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families -- in other words, welfare.
Even though there is no evidence that those needing temporary assistance are any more likely to abuse drugs than the overall population, redneck Republicans in the Legislature think it's good politics to make the "freeloaders" pee in a cup.
Of course, the rhetoric isn't so crass -- it's all spit-polished with high-minded oratory about protecting the taxpayers' money and getting drug abusers help.
Well, doesn't the same thing apply to our august lawmakers? They draw salaries and benefits in the $50,000 a year range, all paid for by the taxpayers. Shouldn't the taxpayers know with certainty that their lawmakers aren't collecting tax dollars with one hand while illegally popping pills or puffing Cheeba with the other?
A schoolyard cliché applies here: What's good for the goose is good for the gander.
Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City, removed the provision in a Senate committee, dismissing it as a "stunt" -- even though the Senate voted 44-0 in 2010 to approve SB 1392 that included a drug-testing requirement for all state elected officials. (It later died in the House.)
"It is hypocritical of us as lawmakers to take state pay, and conduct the state's business, but ask those who receive benefits to take a drug test, but then refuse to take the same drug test ourselves," said Rep. Mike Shelton, the Oklahoma City Democrat who authored the amendment that expanded the drug-testing requirement to candidates.
"I plan to re-submit this amendment when the bill comes back to the House for final consideration."
Don't hold your breath that lawmakers will approve it. Whether it's drug testing, ethics or open records/open meetings, the Legislature's Powers-That-Be seem confident they can do whatever they want -- hypocrisy, venality or public good be damned.
You don't have to be a seer to know what Norm Rourke is thinking.
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