House gets busy as session ends
BY RANDY KREHBIEL World Staff Writer
Saturday, May 26, 2012
5/26/12 at 4:47 AM
Related Story: Legislature gets mixed reviews as session closes
OKLAHOMA CITY - Oklahoma's House of Representatives did mostly nothing until 2:30 p.m. Friday, the final day of the legislative session.
With 2 1/2 hours left before the state Constitution said the House had to go home, it perked up and went thrashing through stacks of remaining legislation like tax accountants on April 14.
Among them were three child welfare reform bills, appropriation trailer bills for rural medical residencies, Gov. Mary Fallin's bridge-repair program and $57 million for the Oklahoma Health Care Authority. After passing three measures in the prior 5 1/2 hours, the House ran through 25 between 2:30 and 5 p.m. and was in the middle of a 26th when it was constitutionally required to adjourn sine die.
For all of Friday morning and into the afternoon, the same coalition of the Democratic minority and renegade Republicans who a day earlier threatened to sink the general appropriations bill fought the Republican leadership to a standstill.
Two appropriations trailer bills had to be laid over, and an education bill that included provisions for a state virtual charter school board and a late addition requiring $30 million of the common education appropriation be spent on textbooks kept the House tied up the rest of the morning.
The general appropriations bill passed Thursday designated $33 million for textbooks and instructional materials, but state Superintendent Janet Barresi said she planned to use $11.5 million of that for a shortage in a fund that covers a variety of instructional activities. Her reaction may have stemmed from confusion over an earlier bill that extended local discretion over a separate annual allocation for textbooks and the more recent legislation.
Senate Bill 1816 was supposed to be a compromise that left $3 million to Barresi's discretion and ordered $30 million be spent on textbooks.
Mostly, the bill gave the House an opportunity to tee off on Barresi for more than hour before sending it to the governor on an 83-6 vote. The Senate, anticipating trouble, had already pulled one of its bills from the discard pile, turning it into an additional $3 million appropriation for textbooks that, with the $30 million line item approved earlier, restored the full amount originally intended.
The House did not take up the bill, however, until the opposition managed to block a procedural vote needed to bring up child welfare bills. This prompted a brief recess, during which the Senate bill with the additional $3 million for education went through committee. When the body reconvened at 2:30 p.m., the Democrats got out of the way except to vote against bills they genuinely didn't like.
Some of the disaffected Republicans continued to fight leadership on practically every point, but the stalemate was clearly at an end.
"It's a process," said Speaker Kris Steele. "The minority party (has) a role. I served in the minority four years, and that was helpful. At the end of the day, we all want to do what's best for Oklahoma."
"They still had some key pieces of legislation," said Democratic leader Scott Inman. "Our members had a lot of bills left to be heard. The speaker and the floor leader (Rep. Dale DeWitt, R-Braman), to their credit, agreed to work with us."
Inman agreed the $3 million for education was "not a huge deal" in the big scheme of things, but it was $3 million common education didn't otherwise have.
The term-limited Steele took over the speaker's chair for the final 20 minutes of his final session, with his two young daughters and two of his nieces seated behind him. In the end, he said, the House got to almost every bill of substance, and while the Senate and Fallin were less than thrilled with the House - mainly for blowing up Fallin's tax-cut proposal on Wednesday - Steele said he thought his membership had acted responsibly and been productive.
"I think when we look back we will see it was very fruitful," Steele said.
He said the House accomplished a great deal in reforms to the Department of Human Services, pension and prison reform, water conservation and planning, and steps to increase rural Oklahoma's access to medical care.
"We produced a balanced budget that, all rhetoric aside, I think really protects core services," Steele said.
He pinned the failure to reduce the state's income tax rate on an inability to eliminate or reduce major tax credits and other preferences and on a Senate proposal that would have negatively impacted about a quarter of households.
"As we got into the session, the political will was just not there to reform tax credits," Steele said.
Steele acknowledged the fractiousness in his own caucus but said that was to be expected given the number and diversity of members in it.
"I respect and appreciate my colleagues," he said. "At times it might have gotten personal, but I hold no grudges to anyone."
Randy Krehbiel 918-581-8365
House Speaker Kris Steele hugs Rep. Todd Russ, R-Cordell, after time adjourns on the final day of the legislative session at the state Capitol on Friday. CORY YOUNG / Tulsa World