By Patrick B. McGuigan | CapitolBeatOK
OKLAHOMA CITY — State Rep. T. W. Shannon became the highest-ranking elected official of African-American descent in Oklahoma history this week.
Soon after his election as Speaker of the state House, the Lawton Republican, also a member of the Chickasaw Nation, promised to pursue a conservative agenda, including a push back against directives from Washington, D.C.
Along with Senate President Pro Temp Brian Bingman, Shannon will likely lead efforts to reform workers compensation, push for tax relief and repair the state capitol. With tax revenue projected to grow around $200 million, the lawmakers say they’ll trim the $1.7 billion in increased spending state agencies have requested.
“I am humbled by the confidence of my peers to lead our state legislature and promote a pro-family, low-tax, economic-growth agenda,” Shannon said. “We were sent here by the people of Oklahoma to implement the type of government that will create jobs, reduce burdensome regulations on businesses, expand individual freedom and push back against a federal government that habitually oversteps its bounds set forth by the Constitution.”
The Oklahoma State Chamber of Commerce also describes workers comp as its top issue for this year, bolstering odds for reform. Roy Williams, president and CEO of the Oklahoma City Chamber, insists workers comp costs are “the biggest obstacle” the state’s businesses now face.
The push for workers comp reform comes in the wake of several years of cumulative reforms of the state’s tort litigation, with the most significant steps taken since the the GOP took control of both houses of the Legislature. Republicans want to create an administrative alternative to the state’s litigation-centered workers comp system, and perhaps provide an opt-out for self-insured businesses.
The Chamber’s intention to protect “key economic development programs” may make it difficult to achieve tax relief, as those programs are financed by exemptions, credits and direct paybacks to qualifying businesses. In the 2011-12 session, the Chamber played a key role in fighting bipartisan efforts to tighten the state’s incentives.
The Chamber said in a press release it will oppose changes in several programs “that have recently fallen under increased legislative scrutiny, such as the new jobs/investment tax credit and the historical building rehabilitation tax credit.”
Despite recent history and the epic fail of tax reduction in 2012, legislative leaders assert this will be the year for at least modest tax reduction.
In this, they echo state Finance Secretary Preston Doerflinger, who told CapitolBeatOK last month there would likely be a tax reduction proposal from the governor — but “not as detailed or broad” as last year’s. Tax cut efforts fell apart in the last three days of the 2012 session.
In his first speech after winning the top House position, Shannon repeated a federalist theme that has punctuated his speeches in recent years. He promised to fight federal intrusions into state policymaking prerogatives, including in health care.
Shannon and Bingman strongly support Gov. Mary Fallin’s intention to avoid establishment of a state-based health insurance exchange, as envisioned in the Affordable Care Act, and her opposition to the Medicaid expansion included within Obamacare.
The decaying Capitol Building will likely be addressed this year, either through a hefty bond issue or a “pay-as-you-go” approach that could eat up much of the increased revenue Doerflinger’s staff anticipates.
Other possible bond issues include financing to complete an Indian Cultural Center on the Oklahoma River and a “Pop Culture” museum in Tulsa.
Water policy is rarely listed as a formal priority for 2013, but that may change. It’s likely lawmakers will have to respond to a divisive federal lawsuit pitting the Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes (second and third largest of the state’s Indian nations) against both the state and Oklahoma City.
A task force empowered by a federal district judge, has conducted secret negotiations for several months, with little or no information available to the news media or the general public.
On a parallel track, Tarrant County, Texas (the Dallas-Forth Worth metroplex) has gained U.S. Supreme Court review of its lawsuit designed to force water sales to the Lone Star State from the Red River watershed in Oklahoma.
Another wild-card issue could be follow-up on implementation of the historic Justice Reinvestment Act, a broad policy shift designed to move the state away from its “first in the nation” incarceration rates toward alternatives to imprisonment for non-violent crimes.
In a year of challenged budgeting, pressures to increase pay for Corrections Department employees, along with broader budget stress, could impede appropriations of the estimated $5 million to finance start-up costs for the reinvestment programs.
Democrats are weaker than at any other point in state history, outnumbered in the House 72-29, and in the Senate 36-12. However, the minority caucus proved an effective force the past two years, especially when allied with dissenting Republicans. That usually came on procedural matters, but also on a handful of substantive policy or budget votes.
While leaving Republicans firmly in charge, Shannon has announced appointment of three minority caucus vice-chairmen to standing committees, a gesture Democrats applauded.
Democratic House Leader Scott Inman of Del City, first elected the same year as Shannon, said he hopes to work “productively … as we cast off the fringe elements that have held our legislature hostage in recent years.”
The session opens with Gov. Fallin’s State of the State address on Monday, Feb. 4. Despite the powerful Republican majorities, an often-fractious caucus assures there is no way confidently to predict what the final legislative product will look like come “sine die” adjournment on May 31.
The only thing fully predictable is that the unpredictable will happen — and that will affect the plans of both leadership and the rank-and-file.
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