Sunday, June 04, 2006

Grading the Session

There was a lot of ink and bytes used on grading the legislative session last week. Seems everyone is weighing in on the budget battles and everyone has an opinion. Personally, as a former teacher, I would obviously give the session an "I" for incomplete. (Without a budget, it is incomplete.) And personally, as a former teacher, I'd like to see teachers get that proposed $3,000 salary increase. Personally, I'd like for state employees to get a raise. Personally, I'd like to see us make strategic investments in our state's infrastructure before considering targeted tax cuts. Personally, I'd like to get this wrapped up and get on with the campaigns; or is that what the budget battle is really about? the campaigns?

Ken Neal shared his opinion with readers today. He calls it "power politics" in this morning's editorial in the Tulsa World:

Power politics
By KEN NEAL Editorial pages editor

View in Print (PDF) Format

2006 Legislature spent session in conflict instead of moving state forward

The 2006 Legislature could have done more to advance Oklahoma than any in recent history. Instead it will be remembered for political wrangling and pettiness. More than anything, it represents a missed opportunity.

Rarely does Oklahoma have the booming economy and therefore the state government income to give it a chance to gain on the rest of the nation. It happened this year and with luck will continue into next year.

This bunch squabbled from February up to the end of the regular session on May 26, forcing Gov. Brad Henry to call a special session to get the normal work of the state done, something that has not been finished..

It appeared that an agreement to cut the income tax rate and increase the standard deduction had been reached and there were talks continuing on the spending side of the 2006-07 budget when the lawmakers disappeared like a covey of quail.

There were few, if any, lawmakers at the Capitol last week, and with the filing period for state offices begining Monday [ 173](June 5)it is doubtful that legislators will return before June 12.

Nothing is certain, but the agreement on taxes reportedly would reduce the state income tax from 6.25 percent to 5.65 percent the first year; to 5.5 percent for two years and ultimately to 5.25 percent if revenue holds. The hike in the standard deduction would be phased in during four fiscal years, effectively lowering taxes to Oklahomans of average income.

The combination ultimately would reduce state income by at least $400 million a year but about $90 million in fiscal 2006-07, which is under immediate consideration.

Despite the schoolboy wrangling, it's not too late for the Legislature to move Oklahoma services forward.

It is not as if everything is up to date in Oklahoma. The opposite is true. Oklahoma badly needs to improve. Its schools lack support. Higher education struggles. Public health services lag. Prisons are full. Roads and highways are terrible and getting worse.

Todd Hiett, who became the first Republican speaker of the House, has no realization of the political value of building the state, believing tax cuts are the answer to everything, including his race for lieutenant governor. Imagine the political benefit to him and his party if he could boast using part of $1 billion in surplus to propel Oklahoma forward in its 100th year! Instead, with the help of hard-headed Democrats in the state Senate, he will be remembered as a roadblock to progress.

The surplus money (even after an affordable tax cut) could still be invested in state needs. A major program for roads and highways, for example, would result in a construction flurry and untold jobs. That would give the Oklahoma economy a boost, something Hiett claims only a tax cut will do. The difference is that if the money is spent on infrastructure and services, Oklahoma will have something of value to show for a prosperous time that might not continue.

Maybe the worst effect of a highly paid state Legislature quarreling like school children is the discouraging effect on citizens. The legislative process has become so convoluted and the members so intent on playing games that the press and television with reporters and cameras on the scene daily have trouble knowing what's happening. No wonder there's very little Capitol coverage on the nightly news.

Imagine lawmakers so dense that they can't explain their work in front of television cameras. Or legislative leaders who make decisions behind closed doors, leaving individual members to choose sides and go play ball! That happened in the 2006 session.

Despite the election year theatrics, it makes little difference which political party is in control. This session was marked not only by Democrat-Republican conflicts, but inter-party struggle. The Republicans are split into warring camps with their leaders struggling with each other for office and legislative positions.

And Democrats, with a bare majority in the Senate, have nearly as much strife in their own caucus as with Republicans.

This session was marked by the naked ambition of individuals who care about the state only as it figures in their own plans.

The irony is that the ambitious lawmakers would have been far more popular with the people whose votes they seek if they had performed responsibly and behaved as ladies and gentlemen.

The best politics is usually the right thing. That's apparently a hard lesson for this bunch.

So what do you think? How do you grade the session?

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