Legislative Preview: Capitol Crumbles Under GOP Dominance As Session Convenes

Image of T.W. ShannonImage of Mary Fallin

House Speaker T.W. Shannon, a Lawton Republican, and Gov. Mary Fallin, who grew up in Tecumseh, are the two major political players to watch as the Oklahoma Legislature convenes today.

Can these two leaders, in particular, along with Senate President Pro Tempore Brian Bingman, a Sapulpa Republican, temper the Tea Party ideologues and other extremists in their own party and prevent a GOP implosion as the session unfolds?

Bingman may have the easier job in the Senate just because it has fewer extremists that need to be appeased, and, anyway, his own support for radical anti-abortion legislation last year ties him closely to the ultra-conservative agenda.

Both Shannon and Fallin face larger, rowdier factions, all with political agendas, whether it’s cutting the income tax drastically or giving civil rights to fertilized human eggs or exempting Oklahoma from federal gun laws.

The Republicans, with their staggering veto-proof majorities in both the House and Senate, have made it to the free legislative candy store, but will they stumble and trip over themselves in a stampede to gorge on the sweet treats of self-righteous, ideological purity? Duh-licious.

Republicans have a 72-29 majority in the House and a 36-12 majority in the Senate.

Shannon, the state’s first African American House Speaker, will probably have the toughest task corralling the social conservatives and Tea Party adherents, such as state Reps. Sally Kern and Mike Reynolds, both Oklahoma City Republicans, while pushing a right-wing fiscal agenda. Last year, for example, the anti-abortion personhood bill granting rights to fertilized eggs effectively died in the House. This year, the bill is back, even though the Oklahoma Supreme Court has ruled the entire idea unconstitutional. What will Shannon do?

But, like Bingman, Shannon has his own flirtations with what some may see as extremism. In a most recent example, Shannon has formed a States’ Rights Committee because, as he put it, “the need for our state to focus on our sovereignty is crucial to the future prosperity of Oklahomans.” Really? Crucial? What’s really crucial is to not jeopardize all the federal funds that flow into the state each year. The sovereignty idea came from another legislator, but Shannon made his endorsement extremely clear undoubtedly for political reasons. Is this mere anti-President Barack Obama secessionist drivel or something more recklessly substantial? Could this committee grow into another embarrassment to the state, which, of course, would actually diminish “the future prosperity of Oklahomans”?

The major fiscal issue this year will be whether the GOP has the intellectual apparatus and political unity to pass more tax cuts, including an income tax cut. Budget analysts, state agencies, educational institutions and the state’s think tanks will follow this issue closely, and all eyes will initially be on Fallin.

The governor has indicated she will propose an income tax cut without any offsets in her state of the state speech, but she has also stated her focus this year will be on the state’s overall health outcomes. Fallin wants her state’s citizens to be healthier, which is admirable enough, but it’s difficult to see how that can happen without more state spending and commitment to the issue. She, in fact, has already called for more funding for mental health issues.

How will Fallin reconcile her health-care ambitions and a tax cut, especially given the prevailing GOP philosophies about “individual responsibility” and “makers and the takers” expressed within the rank and file of her own political party in Oklahoma? Last year, Fallin’s desire for an income tax cut went unfulfilled because her own party couldn’t find agreement. Will that happen again?

What level of political power does Fallin, who remains a popular governor, even yield with the legislature given the veto-proof Republican majorities in the House and Senate?

One issue where that will obviously manifest itself is the division among Republicans on how to fix the state Capitol, which is literally and figuratively crumbling under Republican dominance. Fallin has proposed, among other ideas, that the state use bonds to pay for the repairs, a proposal labeled imprudent borrowing and denied by Republicans last year. Even the state’s ultra-conservative newspaper, The Oklahoman, owned by a Colorado billionaire oilman, has endorsed the bond-issue idea, but it’s doubtful Republicans here will go for it this year.

So the people’s Capitol crumbles away before our eyes as the various Republican factions flex their political muscles and accelerate the intraparty squabbling. It’s a fitting juxtaposition and defining image as the 2013 legislature convenes. Will the entire place just finally collapse this year from all the right-wing righteous indignation, Obama hatred, Republican in-fighting and lack of basic GOP foresight?