Capitol Report: Another blow to party discipline in Oklahoma
BY WAYNE GREENE World Senior Writer
Sunday, April 22, 2012
4/22/12 at 4:43 AM
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In case you missed it, more than half of the Oklahoma House of Representatives got re-elected last week.
There wasn't a vote, and there won't be.
They were all elected by acclamation, or more properly, by inertia. No one filed against them.
That's not a new phenomenon. Legislators have been walking into re-election almost as long as there have been legislatures, but this year's version has an interesting nuance - one that suggests a further weakening of party unity in the state Capitol.
To make sure overseas troops get a chance to vote by absentee ballot, Oklahoma moved its state primary election date from July to June. The same federally mandated process meant the date when candidates file to run for the Legislature also moved - from June (after the legislative session ends) to April (when it's just getting interesting).
There was some grumbling among legislators about that move: While their opponents could file for office and start knocking on doors, incumbents were tied up in session.
But the other half of that story seemed more interesting last week.
For more than 50 members of the House - including 35 Republicans - all re-election anxieties were ended on filing day when no one showed up to oppose them in either party.
Here's how that could impact party unity: A legislator who is running for re-election - or at least thinks he might have to run for re-election - has to think about how he will finance a campaign, and an awful lot of the money available to legislative candidates is controlled by their legislative leaders.
Fall out with party leaders, and they could lose a good bit of their campaign financing.
And if they completely fall out with their party leaders, they risk having someone find a primary opponent to run against them.
When the filing date came after adjournment, party leaders held the power of the campaign purse until the end of the session. Now, the last third of the legislative year is unfettered by re-election issues for a lot of members.
It's hard to say if that played a role in some of last week's contention at the Capitol, but you have to wonder if it was a part of the psychology in a very interesting week.
First, House Democrats came very close to overriding a Mary Fallin veto (for the first time) on a proposal to give liability protection to mobile home park operators who allow residents to take shelter in their offices during severe weather. The bill, by Rep. Eric Proctor, D-Tulsa, passed the House on a 92-0 vote earlier this year, but Fallin vetoed it because it treated mobile home park owners differently from all other business owners.
As the veto override issue gained steam on the House floor Monday, several Republicans made it clear they were ready to break ranks with the governor. House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, saved the day for the governor when he managed to get the effort tabled. By the next day, Steele had a new deal to offer: the liability protection would be broadened to include other businesses and would be added to another bill pending in the Senate.
The GOP House members mostly fell in line, the override stalled and the GOP crisis was averted.
But by then another firestorm was playing out in the Republican caucus - a proposal to bestow "all the rights, privileges and immunities available to other persons, citizens and residents of this state" on "unborn children ... from the moment of conception until birth at every stage of biological development" - the so-called "personhood" bill.
Proponents and opponents of the measure said they thought Steele was holding up the measure at the behest of the state chamber of commerce.
Republican personhood supporters were circulating a petition calling on a floor vote.
But again Steele managed to finesse the controversy, at least for now. After the House approved another pro-life bill Thursday, Republicans met in a closed-door caucus, and Steele emerged to announce the caucus had decided not to consider personhood this year, although, he said, he personally was ready to support it.
So, the Republican caucus may have been shaken a bit, but it remained united, at least publicly.
But you have to wonder how much more difficult Steele's task was in both instances because so many of his members didn't have anything to worry about in the coming election.
With less party discipline, lawmakers will act more as independent agents, true to their hearts and beholden to no one. But it also means that the coalition that has dominated the Oklahoma Legislature for most of contemporary history - whether Democrats or Republicans were in power - by governing from the middle of the political spectrum, is seeing its authority eroding on the outer edges.
Original Print Headline: Party unity a victim of election rules
Wayne Greene 918-581-8308