By Patrick B. McGuigan
OKLAHOMA CITY — Gov. Mary Fallin’s veto of 15 House bills in a single day last week was a state record for a governor while a Legislature was still in session.
Fallin set the record intending to bring legislators to the negotiating table on the budget and other big issues she said they were avoiding. The vetoes questioned the seriousness of this Legislature.
“The mere volume of bills causes silly laws to be passed, thus forcing the governor to veto them,” political historian Bob Burke told The City Sentinel. “Last year, the Legislature passed the most drastic workers comp reform in history, yet only a handful of legislators have admitted to me that they read the bill.”
Burke, author of several dozen biographies and histories centered on Oklahoma, said, “The days of powerful (legislative) leaders are gone and hundreds of bills on every conceivable topic are filed each year. Legislators do not have the time to read all the bills. The bills are passed without due consideration of unintended consequences.”
Burke is explicitly sympathetic with the Fallin vetoes. “The governor has appropriately put the brakes on by vetoing a number of the measures that have bad unintended consequences.”
Among others, Fallin vetoed a bill that would make the jurisdiction of county commissioners a state rather than local issue, and a bill that limited curbs on gun regulations in state or federal jurisdiction.
Unspoken in her veto messages, but a part of her explanation to reporters, was Fallin’s disappointment in what the Legislature, particularly the House, has failed to do: pass a state Capitol repairs bond issue; dragging its feet on a major pension reform measure; and not finding the money to finish the American Indian Cultural Museum on the Oklahoma River in Oklahoma City. (http://watchdog.org/141680/gov-fallin-spanks-ok-legislature-acting-big-issues/)
Fallin’s irritation with the Legislature is climbing. She has vetoed 63 bills during her administration, 11 in both 2011 and 2012; 17 in 2013; and 24 as of May 2 this year.
“The number of vetoes seems to be related to the working relationship between the governor and legislative leaders,” Burke said. “Many fewer bills were passed by the legislature 40 years ago.”
Although the state House voted to override one of Fallin’s recent vetoes, the Senate seems unlikely to follow suit. (http://watchdog.org/142114/ok-house-fallin-veto-guns/)
Governors here have long exercised their veto power more vigorously at the end of sessions – after House and Senate members have gone home and cannot attempt overrides.
Until the last two decades Gov. Johnston Murray, a Democrat, held the record for after-session vetoes with 20 in 1953. Murray, too, vetoed bills out of frustration, punctuating what he called a ‘do-nothing session,” according to Robert Blackburn, an author who runs the Oklahoma History Center.
Murray, like Fallin, took to battling members of his own party, Blackburn said.
The first Republican governor in state history, Henry Bellmon, elected in 1962, used vetoes sparingly during his first four-year term (1963-67). With support from conservative Democrats and a small Republican contingent in the Legislature, Bellmon threatened those he called “tax hogs” with vetoes.
Notable, and sustained, vetoes came on a proposed pension payout hike and in stopping an across-the-board pay hike for public school teachers in 1963.
Bellmon’s successor, fellow Republican Dewey Bartlett, (1967-71) used the veto a total of 56 times in four years. He was overridden only three times, in each instance on a party-line vote.
However, in the Bartlett years, the basis for more frequent disagreements was laid as the Legislature began to meet annually, rather than every two years.
David Hall (1971-75) often clashed with fellow Democrats in the Legislature, but used the veto sparingly.
David Boren (1975-79) won a tough veto fight over attempts to undo a workers’ compensation reform he had promoted. Boren relied on executive orders when possible, rather than the veto threat, to advance his agenda.
George Nigh (1979-87) – a Democrat and the first two-term governor in state history – says he “didn’t veto very many bills at all. Most of the things I might have vetoed we worked out ahead of time.”
After two terms in the U.S. Senate, Bellmon returned for a second, non-consecutive four-year term (1987-91). Having moderated during service in the nation’s capital, Bellmon occasionally exercised his veto but clashed less frequently with Democrats.
Gov. David Walters (1991-95) vetoed infrequently, and apparently had no double-digit days. Walters observed that a veto struggle can bring “a rare peak behind the curtains of how made laws are made.”
Walters has a different take the recent vetoes differently than does Burke, telling The City Sentinel, “Fifteen vetoes at one time is a reflection of a power struggle rather than a debate on policy differences.”
As the Republicans made their ascent for control of state government, Republican governors like Frank Keating (1995-2003), who vetoed a record 302 bills from 1995 through 2003, used the veto as a weapon against legislatures controlled by Democrats. Keating was never overridden, with a high-water mark of 10 bills vetoed in a single day.
Democratic Gov. Brad Henry returned the favor, vetoing 154 bills between 2003 and 2011, 22 in a single day, as Republicans gained control of both houses.
Henry was overridden rarely, including a couple of anti-abortion measures enacted over his veto in 2010. Those measures faced litigation, as Henry had predicted in his veto messages.
Reviewing the last three executive administrations (Keating, Henry, Fallin) Burke said he thinks as the number of bills passed by Oklahoma legislatures rises, so will the number governors veto.
“We would all be better off if legislative leaders would screen the high volume of bills and prevent those without substance or usefulness to ever see the light of day. That is the most efficient use of good, strong legislative leadership,” Burke reflected.