POSTED ON JUNE 13, 2012:
Give 'em the Boot
The influence of special interests still looms large at the capitol
Lost in all the hoopla (pun intended) over Oklahoma City's quest for an NBA championship was a dust-up between Gov. Mary Fallin and black lawmakers that exposed an untreated cancer in our body politic.
The dust-up involved a pair of custom-made cowboy boots. The cancer involves money.
You may have taken note of the volleying that surrounded the arrival in Oklahoma of Sir Charles Barkley, the basketball Hall of Famer-turned-analyst on Turner Network Television.
As the Thunder steadily improved the last three seasons, Barkley frequently served up scornful swipes at Oklahoma -- mostly harmless, stereotypical stuff: backward, wasteland, hick-ish. Yada, yada, yada.
Barkley, of course, is paid (handsomely) to provoke (and attract viewers). But there were more than a few parochial Okies who never got the gag. (In fairness, there were similarly torqued residents of another Barkley target: San Antonio.)
The NBA semi-finals meant Sir Charles finally would step onto Oklahoma soil. In good fun, the locals arranged a tour that included Barkley cutting into a steak at Cattlemen's and touring the bombing memorial.
On TNT's pre-game show, Gov. Mary Fallin appeared alongside Barkley, wearing her Thunder blue. She presented Sir Charles a custom-made pair of black ostrich-soled, alligator-skin cowboy boots, each bearing his initials inside a state-flag-blue outline of Oklahoma.
The boots, valued at about $1,500, were compliments of the state Legislature's Black Caucus -- whose members were nowhere to be seen during the presentation.
At least one caucus member, Rep. Mike Shelton, an Oklahoma City Democrat, fired off an e-mail alleging the governor had managed to "hijack" the caucus's good-will gesture.
Inside the state Capitol bubble, this is one of those juicy episodes that gossipers relish. Outside, it's probably viewed as the equivalent of tantrum-throwing kids kicking sand out of the sandbox.
The truth is, the dust-up actually is quite important -- not because it reflects long-term bad blood between a Republican governor and African American lawmakers, but because of what it says about an entitlement culture that pervades the Capitol.
Let me explain: The influence of special interest money at the state Capitol is perverting the democratic process. Period.
The minute a newly elected legislator arrives in Oklahoma City, he or she is swarmed by a covey of lobbyists, anxious to build as close a relationship as possible with those who will help decide which bills become law and which are deposited in File 13.
It's big, expensive business. Lobbyists outnumber legislators by a more than 2-1 margin.
I don't have a problem with groups or companies banding together to make their concerns known at the Capitol. I have a problem with legislators accepting all sorts of goodies from groups, companies or individuals trying to influence their votes.
There are State Ethics Commission rules that put a $100 annual limit on the amount a lobbyist can spend on an individual legislator -- down from $300 several years ago.
But special interests ought not be showering any gifts -- whether it's meals, Thunder tickets, beach towels or whatever -- on lawmakers, and lawmakers ought not be accepting anything of value.
Perception is reality, especially in politics. The perception that legislative spoils all-too-often go to the highest bidder is fueled by these cozy relationships.
Oklahoma lawmakers are among the best paid in the nation -- averaging about $50,000 a year in salary, benefits, expenses, etc. Lawmakers can afford to go Dutch treat if they want to dine, play golf or attend a ball game with a lobbyist.
Who do you think typically moves to the head of legislators' appointment calendars? The rank-and-file citizen who may never have met his or her elected official, but suddenly has an urgent need? Or the lobbyist who spends hours and dollars building relationships with legislators -- and who has influence over how much special interests contribute to legislators' re-election efforts.
Common Cause's efforts to create a No Gift Registry has gone nowhere. Both special interests and lawmakers seem quite happy with the status quo.
And that is where the problem with Sir Charles' cowboy boots ties in. Who paid for the manly footwear?
A Republican blogger in Oklahoma City posed the question -- after hearing that black caucus members may have asked lobbyists to foot the bill.
I rarely agree with the blogger politically but it was an important question to ask. So I left a message for Rep. Shelton, whom I admire and generally agree with politically. No response.
I don't know who paid for Sir Charles' boots. But I know this: The mere fact that it's plausible that legislators asked special interest lobbyists to underwrite the goodwill gesture is an indictment of the Legislature and its ethics.
It's become all-too-common for elected officials to look the other way when special interests pick up the tab. In fact, lawmakers don't even try to hide the fact anymore. They announce from the House floor, for example, which special interests are providing lunch or dinner when lawmakers are working overtime during session's end. A hearty round of applause follows.
What do those special interests get for their attentiveness? They get access to political power that most rank-and-file Oklahomans can't. And they often land direct payments from the state treasury -- billions of dollars in tax breaks, credits and incentives.
This year, some principled legislators sought to end the corporate welfare system that special interest lobbying helps buy. Even the governor said she believed any such deals that weren't job producers should be shelved.
The special interests went to work. Nothing changed. They laughed all the way to the bank. And the lawmakers and the lobbyists sat down for another meal.
I'm not naïve. I know it's long been this way. Sadly, some are cynical enough to think it will forever be thus.
I am hopeful. I dream of an Oklahoma where every voice -- whether from the state's Forbes 400 billionaires or Ma and Pa Kettle in Gotebo -- carries equal weight with our deciders in Oklahoma City.
The old saw at the state Capitol is, if you can't eat their food and drink their booze and vote against them the next day, you don't belong in the Legislature.
Sad commentary, isn't it?
URL for this story: http://www.urbantulsa.comhttp://www.urbantulsa.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A50038