It seems like people are getting along, mostly, at the State Capitol. (I know how strange it must be to read that. It was strange typing it, too.)
The seemingly good feelings under the Capitol dome made me wonder: Is new Gov. Kevin Stitt enjoying a honeymoon period? I also had a few other questions about a legislative session that includes nearly 60 new lawmakers working with a governor who holds his first public elected office. So, I posed a few questions to Barbara Hoberock and Randy Krehbiel.
Barbara’s and Randy’s knowledge and perspective of Oklahoma’s Legislature are as good as it gets. They have a combined 50 years of experience. Barbara is dean of the Capitol Press Corps, as the longest consecutively serving member of the group. Her daily coverage from the Capitol offices started in 1994, when David Walters was governor.
I asked Barbara and Randy questions separately, and they had several of the same observations. Here is their insight into a legislative session that started Feb. 4 and must end by May 31:
What is the atmosphere like this session?
“The atmosphere is much more cordial than in prior years,” Barbara said.
Randy said it’s just more “relaxed. ... There’s joking around on the floor. It still gets tense at times, but it doesn’t seem like it’s as tense as it’s been in recent years.”
Has Kevin Stitt been given a honeymoon period with the Legislature?
Yes, we’re in that mostly happy time in a new relationship when people get along.
Last week, the Legislature pushed through one of Stitt’s biggest initiatives, the reform of five state agencies. The governor now has hiring and firing power over the heads of the Oklahoma Health Care Authority and the departments of Transportation, Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, Juvenile Affairs and Corrections.
(Quick aside: This column is not about whether policy decisions have been good or bad. It’s observations about a process that includes so many newcomers.)
Randy said a comment was made on the House floor last week about the Legislature not being used to agreements on key issues coming so early in the session. He believes two factors are at play — a honeymoon period and good timing for Stitt.
Unlike recent years’ public budget fights, this year was different. There was more money to spend, not less.
“Now, they’re getting to do some things that aren’t quite as difficult,” Randy said.
He also thinks Stitt has made a difference. “He’s an outgoing guy and kind of a take-charge kind of guy; and I think that fosters some optimism (among lawmakers).
“… He’s coming in at a particularly advantageous time for a new governor, and he’s taken full advantage of it.”
How has this compared to previous new governors’ early months in office?
Here’s where Barbara’s and Randy’s perspective is valuable.
Barbara reminded me what it was like eight years ago. Gov. Mary Fallin was “hailed as a new vision when she was first elected. By the end of her second term, she was not thought well of by several lawmakers.”
She frustrated lawmakers when she vetoed most of a budget agreement, forcing them into contentious special sessions that eventually led to a teacher raise.
The early days in office have been good to other governors, “especially if they were from the party in power,” Barbara noted.
What has been the impact of having nearly 60 new members of the Legislature?
There have been benefits and drawbacks.
“There is a pretty large learning curve, but the freshmen are asking good questions,” Barbara said. “Term limits have resulted in the loss of a lot of institutional knowledge, so even those veterans are still learning.”
Randy said it’s probably been “good and bad. From the good standpoint, you don’t have that many people remembering old grudges and things like that. They don’t know how things were done in the past. … And then on the other side, they don’t know how things have been in the past. … They don’t know the process. They don’t necessarily know how to go about building up a coalition to vote for their bill. They don’t know some of the unwritten rules.”
Are there any new lawmakers who seem to be gaining influence at the Capitol?
There will be leaders who emerge from this mass of new lawmakers, but there’s a lot to learn. That means it’s tough to know right now who might emerge.
Barbara said it was too soon to tell, and Randy noted that it’s possible some newcomers are “gaining influence and it’s not real apparent.” He said they may be working behind the scenes.
What’s the biggest surprise you’ve seen so far?
The answer was the same, even though they were asked separately: The speed with which some bills have been passed and signed.
Randy said he’s a “little surprised it’s gone as well as it has for the governor. Just because any time you get any new governor there’s going to be things come up, and especially for somebody that really has no experience.
“But to this point, everything seems to have gone pretty well (for Stitt). He’s gotten most of what he wanted. There haven’t been any open breaches with the Legislature.”
Whether you like the results or not, things are getting done at the State Capitol; and if there are nasty disputes, they’re happening quietly. At least for now.