Patrick B. McGuigan
In a wide-ranging meeting with reporters at the end of the fourth week in the 2012 legislative session, Oklahoma Speaker of the House Kris Steele said he was “extremely encouraged” that the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) bill, H.B. 3052, cleared the House Appropriations and Budget Committee on a 10-2 vote vote this week. Steele said, “I am happy not only with the support for the bill, but with the groups who have helped to make this happen.”
In response to a question from CapitolBeatOK about the measure's floor prospects, Steele smiled and said, “We'll know soon.” He said, “I don't think there is a person up here who doesn't want to keep people safer, and do justice more efficiently.”
In addition to his own legislative priorities, at his weekly sessions with the press corps the Speaker is regularly peppered with inquiries about measures he rarely addresses otherwise. That was the case again this week.
At Thursday's encounter with the press corps, Steele said he supports the “open carry” bill that cleared a House panel this week. He agrees with sponsors that the bill has adequate safeguards to allow both public safety and exercise of Second Amendment rights.
On another issue, Steele declined to criticize an opening prayer that rankled some members on Thursday. The prayer ran 15 minutes and included assertions that troubled some legislators. Steele observed the U.S. Constitution protects freedom of religion, that ministers are asked to keep devotions within five minute and that they not be overtly political.
Concerning the Legislature's workload, the Speaker noted that floor work begins in earnest next week. He disclosed he had met with Floor Leader Dale DeWitt and learned from a preliminary count there are some 242 bills eligible to be heard in the House, with perhaps 50 more sufficiently advanced to reach the legislative “queue.”
While there will be more winnowing, Steele anticipates 200 to 215 bills will move through the process and, “that's manageable.”
Later in the conversation, Steele said he was “not taking anything for granted” in terms of his own proposals or the daily work of the chamber. “I think we're all kind of settling in, and things are even more busy than last year.”
He said he believes a proposed end to transferable tax credits can still advance, despite a setback this week. “I personally believe the more transparency and accountability we have in these programs, the better. I support elimination of transferability.” Still, he observed, “This is a collective process.”
Steele agrees with state Rep. David Dank of Oklahoma City, who chaired the tax force studying tax credits and business incentives the past year, that “the lobbyists have been working pretty hard the last few weeks” to preserve certain credits and exemptions.
Steele, who is advancing Governor Mary Fallin's income tax rate proposals, said, “Our ability to reform the tax code and to reduce some of the credits are directly related.”
Concerning the recent slapdown of a proposed end of transferabiltiy in a House Committee, in dialogue with reporters Steel said, “Don't put too much stock in one or two votes. The proof will be in the pudding, in the final product.”
Steele aligned himself with state Rep. Jason Nelson of Oklahoma City, saying he does not support a proposal by state Reps. Anthony Jordan of Broken Arrow, a Republican, and Jerry McPeak of Warner, a Democrat, to suspend enforcement of the End-of-Instruction (EOI) test requirements for this year's graduating seniors. The measure cleared the state House Appropriations and Budget Committee this week after a comparatively lengthy debate. Prospects for the Jordan-McPeak bill are murky in the state Senate.
Steele echoed views Nelson articulated in that debate. School districts have known the standards for graduation were in place for seven years, he said: “The districts have had time” to adapt to the new benchmarks, and students in high schools have multiple opportunities to retake the assessments. He also pointed to an option allowed under the EOI process, for students to prepare a portfolio as an alternative to testing.
On another issue, Steele said he supported efforts led by state Sen. John Ford of Bartlesville to grant some deregulatory authority and powers to local school districts. “Over time, we in the Legislature have created a number of mandates and not funded them. I support local control,” Steele said.
Steele and Senate President Pro Temp, in their separate sessions with reporters, said that legislators were happy to provide more than $90 million in supplemental funding to a cluster of state agencies. Senate Bill 1959, which cleared the upper chamber with only one dissenting vote, provides a total of $92.5 million in supplemental Fiscal Year 2012 spending for education, public safety and reimbursements to local communities for disaster assistance.
The particulars include $14.8 million for National Board Certified Teachers already in the bonus track, $37.6 million insurance benefits for teachers and support staff, $34.1 million for the state Emergency Fund to provide reimbursement to local communities and counties for disaster assistance, $5 million for a state Trooper Academy, and $1 million for personnel and equipment needed for accreditation.
Both men say they do not think additional supplemental appropriations are likely. Settling on this set of “supps” allows the Legislature now to turn its budgeting and appropriations focus to tax reform, possible changes in tax credits and business incentives, and related major fiscal policy questions.
Steele reflected in his session with the press, “We've taken care of the ones we felt were essential.” He said the supplemental has “solid support in our caucus.” In response to a direct question, Steele reiterated his belief the final passage of S.B. 1959, which is widely anticipated, and “close the door” to other supplemental appropriations.
Concerning a statutory “personhood” bill advanced by pro-life activists, Steele reiterated his belief that S.B. 1433 has support in the House. As for a constitutional proposal that was not heard in committee, and for which advocates launched a ballot initiative drive on Thursday, he reflected, “There is obviously a lot of passion and energy on both sides.” He said the statutory measure seems to preclude a constitutional approach, but observed that “any group of citizens has the right to put measures through the process and to the people.”
Looking at Oklahoma's March 6 Republican presidential primary, Steele declined to disclose his choice. He noted the state is “on the map from a national perspective” and that the four remaining top candidates have each visited the state, and are spending resources here.
Pressed for his views as a Protestant minister (Steele is a Methodist) he reflected that “All things considered, given candidates of equal ability, I'd probably go with the person most like me.” Oklahoma Republicans, he said, are looking for leadership in a presidential nominee. He stressed, “there is more than one individual I can support” in the Republican contest.
Indicating he would support the Republican nominee, Steele said he was “open” to the ideas of bi-partisanship behind the “Americans Elect” ballot status idea unveiled this week by David Boren and a group of OU students. Steele commented, “The two party system is important. We could stand a little more civility in the political process.”