By Patrick B. McGuigan
Gov. Mary Fallin, Speaker of the House T.W. Shannon and Senate President Pro Temp Brian Bingman disagreed on certain particulars about the 2013 legislative session – but were unanimous in praising the end results.
Talking about the session with reporters separately, the trio declared they did a great job.
The May 20 tornado in Moore transformed the final week of deliberations. After the storm, the governor and legislators quickly agreed to push several meaty policy questions out of the way, leaving them for next year, or consigning them to quiet demise in the session’s final hours.
In a late May teleconference, Rep. Shannon, R-Lawton, said the session rated at least a grade of B+, or perhaps an A-. In a separate teleconference with Capitol reporters, Sen. Bingman, R-Sapulpa – principal author of arguably the most significant achievement of the past four months – gave the proceedings “a big fat A.”
Gov. Fallin visited both chambers on the next-to-the-last day of deliberations, thanking fellow Republicans for what she deemed significant achievements. Then, meeting with the press in the Blue Room in the waning hours of House deliberations, she cheered passage of several proposals she had touted in her State of the State address in early February.
Fallin agreed she and the two leaders had all earned an A.
All three, particularly Fallin, devoted most of their session analysis to the last four days of session, when the Legislature passed and she signed a wave of tornado relief measures, especially that $45 million drawdown from the Constitutional Reserve (the Rainy Day Fund).
When not focused on the tornado response — after months of debate and discussion in public and hours of behind-the-scenes negotiations on red meat public policy issues — the “Big Three” players in state government said they were gratified at passage of Workers’ Compensation Reform, an income tax cut (one that should come eventually, in 2015), and an infrastructure plan to use cash flow instead of bond issues to make improvements to the Capitol Building, and to maintain or improve other state properties.
Fallin’s analysis of the session, a long document provided to reporters, touted work comp, the eventual tax cut and other measures, including steps to “right-size” government that nipped and tucked at several boards and commissions.
The Fallin staff projects savings ranging from several hundred thousand dollars to a few million a year.
However, the final budget accord negotiated among the big three increases state spending by at least a quarter-billion dollars. It was the third consecutive spending increase since Republicans took control of state government after the 2010 election.
Fallin expressed satisfaction with funding authorization, as part of the infrastructure improvements Shannon had pushed, for several million dollars to address the flaking exterior of the Capitol Building itself.
She pushed for and received a boost of several million dollars in mental health funding, and instituted a ban on smoking on state property.
The governor hailed the $42 million increase in Human Services funding, to finance the Pinnacle Plan mandated in settlement of major litigation brought against the state’s child services.
Fallin and Bingman expressed disappointment in the demise of the Insure Oklahoma program, the state’s system that provided premium support to the working poor with existing Medicaid dollars. The program always seemed endangered, but took a major blow when the Obama Administration declined to grant a waiver requested to allow continued use of Medicaid monies for the premium supports.
The governor advocated and the Senate considered a proposal to use tobacco tax money to keep Insure Oklahoma, but Speaker Shannon said a few day’s before session’s end he did not want to see taxpayer dollars used to provide insurance. The possible rescue bills died quickly after that.
Gov. Fallin said, in her press briefing, she did not anticipate calling a special session to grapple with Insure Oklahoma, but did not completely rule it out.
In response to questions from The City Sentinel, Shannon said, “I do not have a solution to the problems created by ObamaCare.” He also asserted, “Now that the Obama administration has fundamentally changed the way we do insurance, that program we’ve got to revisit.”
Asked if he also wanted to end programs such as the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (which guarantees bank deposits), federal crop supports and similar programs, Shannon commented that in government, “you get more of what you subsidize.”
Shannon was able to advance a variety of conservative policy objectives that were unsuccessful in the Senate, including a proposal to kill the Sooner State’s involvement with the Common Core Curriculum, a federal initiative.
The issue will remain a hot-button, as Gov. Fallin and her ally Janet Barresi, superintendent of public instruction, continue to tout the concept. Bingman has said he supports the Common Core, but worries about unfunded mandates and costs in the program.
Shannon and Bingman, along with both chambers of the Legislature, agreed on a significant pension reform, creating an optional defined contribution program for new state employees (a system that has proven actuarially more sound than the defined benefit system that characterizes most government retirement programs).
Fallin signed several pension reforms but vetoed that one. She plans to push for consolidation of state pension administration next year.
In response to a question from The City Sentinel, Fallin said when it comes to financial reforms within the state’s half-dozen pension plans, she believes a blend of “cash-basis” financing and a shift toward defined contribution plans for workers would be best.
Proposals for museum financing – the American Indian Cultural Center in Oklahoma City and the OK Pops Center in Tulsa – were widely expected to provide fireworks and debate theatrics in the final days of the session, but were pulled after the Moore tornado.
One issue that remained divisive to the end was a possible pay increase for state Highway Patrol Troopers. Fallin had consistently said she wants to await results of a government employees pay study before deciding on increases for any group of state workers. Both Bingman and Shannon had indicated sympathy for a troopers’ compensation hike.
After the May 20 tornado, Shannon issued a press release that appeared to indicate agreement among Republican leaders to support a trooper pay hike – something many Democrats had long supported. Although the release coupled the pay hike with the $45 million Rainy Day Fund expenditure to finance the state’s share in emergency response, Shannon stressed in his closing press conference that he had never insisted on a trooper’s pay hike as the way to assure passage of the $45 million in spending.
Bingman supported that view, saying he never “had the impression [the Speaker] was saying trooper pay was required in order to get” the storm relief passed. As for Gov. Fallin, she told reporters, “I never had that discussion with the speaker.”
In the end, the trooper pay proposal languished and died – but will likely be resurrected in February 2014, when the Legislature reconvenes