The 57th Oklahoma Legislature, convening Monday, will look quite a bit different from its predecessor.
Quite a few people say that’s a good thing.
Fifty-five members — 45 in the House of Representatives — have never served in state government. Another, Rep. Ken Luttrell, R-Ponca City, is returning after an eight-year hiatus and a party switch.
And on Monday those new members will be hearing a new governor, Kevin Stitt, deliver his first State of the State address.
All of those fresh faces are viewed as a chance for a fresh start. After years of rancor, bickering and gloom, the Capitol is awash in something akin to optimism.
In fact, Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, said he has never been more upbeat heading into a legislative session. Work between the Governor’s Office and legislative leadership, Treat said, has been unparalleled.
“I think we will have a very, very productive session,” he said.
Money helps. Passage of last year’s tax package and the most natural growth revenue in some time has relieved a lot of the pressure that had been building under the Capitol dome.
But there’s also acknowledgement that voters sent a different message to the Legislature in 2018.
“The people want their legislators to work together,” said House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka.
“We’re Democrats; we’re Republicans; and we expect to work together to solve problems,” he said.
One reason for leadership’s sunny disposition is that the turnover presents opportunities for Treat, McCall and their lieutenants to tighten their control of their respective chambers.
McCall, for instance, bade farewell to more than a dozen lawmakers, both Republican and Democrat, who regularly made his job more difficult. The thinking is that the Republican caucus will be more united than in the past while a shrinking Democratic minority, minus some of its most skilled and fiery orators, will be less of a factor.
House Democrats, at last month’s organizational day, made it clear that they intend to be as feisty as ever but acknowledged the testiness of recent years.
“While we may not have the numbers, we’re more than willing to fight the fight until we get it right,” Rep. Regina Goodwin, D-Tulsa, said then.
Much of the Republicans’ legislative priorities, though, seem to be issues that can cut across party lines. This includes criminal justice reform, education and health care.
More likely to prove divisive is an overhaul of state government to give the Governor’s Office direct control of major agencies, including corrections, mental health and Medicaid.
An alternate scenario is for the newcomers to look for guidance elsewhere, such as from lobbyists or agency heads. And there is no guarantee that some new members won’t be just as independent and just as argumentative as some they replaced.
But Sen. Gary Stanislawski, R-Tulsa, the Senate’s senior member and the only one who is term-limited in 2020, said leadership usually prevails.
“New people have a tendency to say things they’re passionate about, but they don’t usually do a lot because they’re new and they’re learning how things work,” Stanislawski said.
“I expect good ideas from the new people, but it will still be the old guard that takes the lead,” he said.
Tulsa World writer Barbara Hoberock contributed to this story.