POSTED ON MAY 2, 2012:
Capitol politics as grand theater
There ought to be a law that everyone in Oklahoma -- at some time in their lives -- must spend at least one week at the state Capitol during the legislative session, watching our elected officials at work.
First, it's grand theater. Second, it's remarkably educational. Third, it will disabuse any notion that the Legislature doesn't impact your life.
Take last week, for example.
It marked an important procedural deadline for measures that realistically could become law, the final step before a bill either goes to the governor for her signature or veto -- or to a joint House-Senate conference committee to work out areas of disagreement.
Stay with me. I know this seems dry. It's not. It's a flashpoint for tempers and high drama. It's a moment when individuals' true colors are on display:
-- Is discretion a lost virtue at the Capitol?
On deadline day, the state House approved a series of pro-Second Amendment, gun rights bills, including open carry.
No surprise. The National Rifle Association and its state affiliate, the Oklahoma Rifle Association, have been among the most masterful puppeteers at the Capitol over the last generation or so.
Typically, whatever the NRA/ORA wants, they get. But it's usually ironed out privately -- one-on-one in the Capitol rotunda or in a lawmaker's office or on the phone.
That's what made the scene in the House so unusual: The top gun lobbyist (no pun intended) actually sat in the front row of the House gallery, signaling House members how to vote -- thumb up for yes, thumb down for no -- as each issue came up.
Subtlety, where art thou?
It's one thing to quietly, purposefully wield such power; it's quite another to exercise it so boldly and publicly.
Our elected officials should at least pretend they are doing their own homework and casting informed, thoughtful votes. It's embarrassing that so many willingly became the legislative equivalent of Edgar Bergen's Charlie McCarthy, simply performing whatever tricks the ventriloquist-lobbyist commands.
-- The refusal of House Republicans to schedule a floor vote on the so-called Personhood Act -- life begins at fertilization -- ignited four days of high drama.
Hour after hour, two dozen to five dozen opponents -- most women, dressed in pink -- kept watch from the gallery, refusing to go home until they knew for certain the proposal was dead.
A few blue-clad proponents came and went, almost indistinguishable from the near-constant parade of school and Leadership (such-and-such town) groups.
At one point, as debate intensified over a simple resolution that asserted -- yet again -- that life begins at conception, a different group of Personhood supporters quietly filed in and took seats in the south gallery.
Most were ministers, dressed in business suits. Some wore clerical collars. All were male.
Among their number were Baptist ministers Steve Kern -- whose wife, Oklahoma City state Rep. Sally Kern, famously declared that gays and lesbians are more dangerous to America than terrorists -- and Paul Blair, the ex-NFL and OSU football player who's mounting a hard-right primary challenge against one of the state Senate's top Republicans, Sen. Clark Jolley of Edmond.
The contrast between the two groups couldn't have been more stark. Or more telling. The scene crystalized as a bunch of men -- religious poobahs -- attempting to tell women what they can and cannot do with their bodies in 21st Century America.
It's not the symbolism that rational Republicans want, especially as they counter a growing perception that a Taliban-style, theocratic fringe is exercising out-size influence over their party.
-- There is nothing quite like the sight of a former longtime school teacher-turned-lawmaker twisting into a human pretzel as she explains why it's good she's gutting one of the state's top teacher-incentive programs.
In this case, the mental gymnastics were courtesy of House Education Committee Chair Ann Coody, R-Lawton.
Asserting state budget poverty, she proposed ending the $5,000 annual National Board Certified Teacher bonus for anyone who hadn't already qualified -- or completed the steps to be qualified -- as of June 30, 2010.
Oklahoma's elected leaders bleat incessantly about wanting the best teachers in the classroom. And here's a program that encourages such excellence. Yet Coody dismisses the program as "unsustainable," citing state revenue woes.
What neither she nor her Republican colleagues concede publicly, of course, is that Oklahoma is hard-pressed to finance the program because the GOP majority prefers pandering -- tax cuts -- over the hard work of actual governing.
Democratic Rep. Joe Dorman of Rush Springs even offered a counter-proposal that would save the incentive program (capping the annual number of applicants at 100) -- and pay for it (using $600,000 in gaming taxes).
But Coody would hear none of it. In a huff, she pulled the bill, meaning it is dead for the session. So the program stays in place -- but there (allegedly) is no money to fund it (it took an emergency, supplemental appropriation to pay for it this year).
At one point, Coody actually claimed that teachers don't pursue National Board certification for the bonus money, implying it's mere love of profession. Sure ... and pigs fly.
There is no question that National Board Certified teachers are driven to be at the top of their profession. But old-fashioned horse sense suggests the nation's 49th worst paid teachers might be more than a little anxious to put another $5K in their bank accounts.
Coody became rather prickly while submitting to questions, most from the Democratic side. One of her former students, state Rep. Don Armes, R-Faxon, was compelled to defend her honor, rebuking the questioners and implying they were unfairly impugning her commitment to education.
A classic political two-step: If you don't have the facts on your side, you make it personal. They weren't attacking her personally -- they were questioning her policy. Big difference.
It's not pretty or effective governing, but it's high drama -- something all Oklahomans should experience first hand.
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