Legislature swears in new members under watchful eye of public (Red Dirt Report)

November 16, 2016

By Heide Brandes

OKLAHOMA CITY – On Wednesday, the Oklahoma Legislature welcomed 32 new representatives and 13 new senators in the traditional swearing in ceremony, and an organized group of citizens were on hand to witness the event and share their priorities with lawmakers new and established.

Let’s Fix This OK, organized by Andy Moore of Oklahoma City, describes it as “Regular folks who believe in a better Oklahoma. We're a nonpartisan nonprofit that helps people become actively involved with their government.” The group, which organized citizen efforts at the Oklahoma Capitol earlier this year, said they were present for the swearing in so lawmakers would know that citizens were passionate about state government.

“We are here to help regular people interact and meet their senators and representatives,” Moore said. “We are here to see the swearing in and let them know that from day one, we are invested and that the public is interested in working with them. I think there is a perception that the public doesn’t care, and that’s not true. It goes both ways. There is a perception that lawmakers don’t care, and that’s not true either.”

While fixing Oklahoma’s budget woes were at the top of most attendee’s list, Moore said having the public and the legislature interact with each other is a step in opening transparency and starting dialogue.

Kandyce Mitchell, a board member for Let’s Fix This, said she attended in an effort to educate the public on how to engage with their lawmakers.

“We want them to know how to engage and invite them to engage with their legislators to let their concerns be heard,” she said. “I’m really encouraged for the coming session. I think the legislature will have to dig deep to find ways to fund teachers’ raises. I hope they will look closely at tax incentives for oil companies, and I hope they keep the Oklahoma film rebate.”

A decline in the Oklahoma economy and the practice of “one-time” funding solutions has put a burden on Oklahoma’s budget. The new legislature is predicted to face an additional $600 to $700 million budget hole for the upcoming session.

Education took a big hit in funding following the budget shortfall this year. The state's $1.3 billion budget deficit led to $74.4 million in cuts to public education. Oklahoma City Public Schools alone laid off 208 teachers, 100 central office administrators and 100 operations workers in addition to cutting funding for supplies, textbook orders and maintenance.

A one-time state funding solution allowed the district to hire most teachers. On election day, voters declined to pass a 1 percent increase in sales tax to pay for a $5,000 pay increase for teachers, leaving incoming legislators with the task of finding a way to fund education and grant teacher pay raises.

Carol Bush, Representative for District 70, is one of the new lawmakers who will tackle that issue in 2017.

“My number one concern is the budget issue,” she said. “We need to develop a long-range strategic financial plan where our expenses match our goals. I don’t believe there is enough transparency and accountability, and those were the reasons I decided to run.”

Although Tuesday was the first time Bush had heard of Let’s Fix This OK, she said she agreed with the mission of the organization.

“I ran on the ticket of a government set up for the people, by the people,” she said. “We should represent our constituents. One of my goals is to have a twice-a-month newsletter to my constituents and also hold town meetings so the public can know what is going on. We should be the people’s voice.”

After the Nov. 7 election, Oklahoma is currently a Republican trifecta, which means Republicans hold the majority in the Senate and House, as well as the governorship. Republicans control the state Senate with 42 seats to Democrats' six seats and control the state House with 75 seats to Democrats' 26 seats.

On Tuesday, the House Republican caucus elected and reaffirmed Rep. Charles McCall of Atoka as House speaker-elect. He ran unopposed in the election this year.

Rep. Harold Wright of Weatherford was chosen as speaker pro tem-elect. The caucus chairman will remain with Rep. David Brumbaugh of Broken Arrow.

In April, Sen. Mike Schulz of Altus was voted to become the next president pro tem of the Oklahoma Senate, which was held by term-limited Sen. Brian Bingman of Sapulpa.