For new lawmakers, the 2019 legislative session was not exactly the baptism by fire others have gone through in recent years. There were no protracted fights over abortion or gun rights, no soul-searching votes on tax increases.
For once, the session involved deciding how to spend more money on needed government services instead of how to scale them back.
Even minority Democrats said they were relatively satisfied with the session that ended a week and a half ago.
But four Tulsa-area legislators new to the game said they learned a lot, including that lawmaking doesn’t always follow textbook diagrams.
“I would change the way I teach government now,” said Rep. John Waldron, D-Tulsa, a former social studies teacher who gave up his job to run for the Legislature.
“A lot happens between the boxes on those diagrams,” he said.
Rep. T.J. Marti, R-Broken Arrow, said he got a closer look inside the legislative process than most new lawmakers do because of his work on pharmacy bills.
Specifically, Marti was involved in legislation related to prescription benefit managers. A pharmacist himself, he watched a bill he supported pass the House and Senate without a dissenting vote only to be vetoed by Gov. Kevin Stitt.
A veto under such circumstances is unusual, but the bill was opposed by the State Chamber of Commerce and several insurers.
Firsthand, Marti observed the behind-the-scenes maneuvering as a second bill, slightly different than the first, went through the Legislature, again without a dissenting vote. Stitt signed that one.
Marti said Stitt was helpful in the process, but added, “If an override was necessary, it was coming.”
All-in-all, Marti said, he was pleased with the session.
“Honestly, I thought it was a great session,” he said. “Because our class was so large (46 new members), we received a lot of extra attention from leadership. There was a lot of mentoring. It wasn’t as it has been in the past, when the freshmen sat in the back of the room.”
Sen. John Haste, R-Broken Arrow, said his biggest surprise after taking office was the quality, knowledge and loyalty of the Senate staff.
He said institutional knowledge is important. Legislative term limits has meant a reduction in institutional knowledge, he said.
“I am just a big believer in you need to know the history to properly take care of the future,” Haste said. “I was very, very pleased and surprised with what I found here from the quality of the people, the loyalty and the knowledge they had.”
He believes Stitt has brought a freshness to the office and made excellent choices for his Cabinet.
Haste said he didn’t enter the office thinking he was going to change the world but wanted to understand what takes place and how to affect it.
“It is not about me,” he said. “It is about what I can do for the district.”
An important part of being a lawmaker is helping constituents connect the dots, Haste said.
“I thoroughly love doing this,” Haste said. “It fits me like a glove. I understand it. I am learning. I don’t have all the answers. I am enjoying asking the questions.”
Haste said he came in at a good time when the state has some money instead of a shortage requiring cuts.
Waldron and Rep. Melissa Provenzano, D-Tulsa, were among a wave of educators sent to the Legislature last fall. Both said that wave had an impact.
“I think it absolutely made a difference,” Provenzano said. “The directive from the voters was very clear. Especially with the budget.”
Provenzano said the education bloc and the groups and voters who supported them were instrumental in shooting down expansion of a tax credit for contributions to private school scholarships and public school grants, and for passage of tighter financial controls on virtual charter schools.
“They were planning on bringing (the scholarship bill) back to the floor but finally gave up,” Provenzano said.
Like most legislative Democrats, Waldron and Provenzano think $200 million put into a reserve fund would have been better spent in the coming year’s budget.
“I believe in saving for a rainy day, but it is raining,” Provenzano said. “Some of that $200 million could have been spent to restore the earned income tax credit. We passed a tax credit for rural doctors. We passed something for businesses that hire software engineers. We would have done (EITC).”
Waldron agreed. The Republican leadership, he said, “didn’t want people to get used to funding services.”
“If we’d put some of that $200 million in criminal justice reform and mental health, we would have gotten it all back,” Waldron said.
“The roof is leaking,” he said. “We didn’t fix the roof. We did a few things, but we didn’t fix the roof.”
Having given up their public school jobs to serve in the Legislature, Provenzano and Waldron have at least one other thing in common — looking for ways to supplement legislative pay that’s even less than they made as educators.
“It’s as hard to live on a legislator’s salary as it is a teachers,” Waldron said.
Actor Jason Lee talks about his new photo exhibit that is being shown at the same time as photos from Larry Clark's iconic photo book "Tulsa."