Monday, December 31, 2007
While this form of abuse is still present in the legislature, I am confident in predicting that the window on legislative earmarks is shrinking. Those of us who are fighting to put an end to earmarks face the likelihood of success, due in part to the fact that there are many new legislators who have taken office in the past few years. Many of these individuals have not been corrupted by the political process. Unlike some of their predecessors, they are not career politicians. Oklahoma's term limit law allows all representatives and senators to serve only twelve years in the legislature. After that, they are under a lifetime ban from holding office in the legislature again. I believe this new generation of representatives and senators are fulfilling one of the important visions of our nation's founding fathers - the vision in which an average citizen dedicates a few years of life to representing the people as a citizen-statesman. At the end of the term of office, the legislator returns to the normal world to live under the very laws he or she helped to create. This helps ensure legislators will be more representative of the people instead of becoming a class of political elite.
As a result of the term limits law, the legislature is very different from just a few years ago. Gone are many of the old guard power bosses who tightly maintained the status-quo. These politicians could have stayed in office almost indefinitely and they held powerful committee chairmanships where they would bottle up reform-minded legislation. They have been replaced by a group of energetic professionals, many of whom wish to enact pro-growth policies (such as cutting taxes) to change Oklahoma for the better. And, should some succumb to the temptation to become part of the status-quo, they will inevitably be replaced by term limits.
However, State Senator Mary Easily recently announced that she will file a resolution as part of an effort to repeal term limits. If the Senator is successful, starting in 2010, members of the legislature would no longer be limited on how long they could serve.
In response, Senator Owen Lauglin released the following statement. "Thanks to term limits, the Oklahoma Legislature has attracted new legislators who have experience in the 'real world.' There is a different mindset because the newer legislators have come here to serve for a finite time and to make a difference. They don't want to make a career of being in the legislature."
I agree with Senator Lauglin's point of view. I think all Oklahomans should take pride in the fact that Oklahoma was the first state to pass a term limits law. As your Representative, I will continue to defend this important reform.
Thursday, December 27, 2007
Monday, December 24, 2007
One of the most offensive mechanisms used to raid the treasury and redistribute money is that of "earmarking." This is the process through which an influential politician essentially cuts a check from the treasury for some pet program or organization.
US Senator Tom Coburn has experienced increasing success in exposing this policy in federal government. By doing so, he is turning up the heat on politicians and making it uncomfortable for them to continue maintaining the big government status-quo. In state government, politicians will insert an earmark into an appropriations bill with just a few days left in the legislative session. This earmark is then voted on as part of a bigger appropriations bill that is not allowed to be amended. If a legislator dares to vote against the bill, then that legislator may face controversy for appearing to vote against justifiable appropriations in the same bill.
One of the vehicles legislators have used for this policy in the past has been an appropriations bill for the Oklahoma Department of Commerce. Certain Department of Commerce appropriations would be earmarked to pass through the Department of Commerce to a second government entity, such as one of the regional government councils. The director of the regional government council would than receive a call from the House of Representatives or the Senate. The caller would instruct the director on how he should spend that money. Sometimes the instructions might be for the money to pass to another government entity, or even to a non-government entity. In this way, money took a variety of twists and turns that made it almost impossible for the public to track. Even many legislators had little opportunity to know the purpose for which money was spent. This allowed powerful committee chairs and high ranking legislators to have a tremendous amount of control over dispensing government largess. In some years, the amount of special projects money in the Department of Commerce alone amounted to millions of dollars. It was the discovery of these abuses which led to the federal scrutiny of some former legislators, after it was realized they may have personally profited from this spending.
Earlier this year, the legislature passed and the Governor signed House Bill 1278. On the surface, HB 1278 was just an appropriations bill for the Oklahoma Department of Tourism. But with research, it became obvious that Senate budget negotiators had loaded up the bill with thousands of dollars of pork earmarks, or "pass through" spending. Pass through spending does not really go to the appropriated entity, but is "PASSED THROUGH" to an outside organization. One of the most controversial provisions was an appropriation of $200,000 for a line item known only as "A Pocket Full of Hope." As one Commissioner of the Tourism Department pointed out, there will be little if any opportunity for us to audit these expenditures and see how the money is really spent. Lt. Governor Mary Fallin, who used to be a member of the tourism board, also used her position to call on legislators to reform the system. Sadly, that call appears to have gone unheeded.
I believe it is wrong for politicians to forcefully take people's hard earned money and use it to cut checks for the privileged few. Senator Coburn's courage in standing against earmarks is contagious, and it is my belief that more and more elected officials will begin to take a position against this abuse
Monday, December 17, 2007
During recent weeks, State Representatives have been required to meet several deadlines regarding submission of new legislation. This is a time of opportunity for us to advocate for legislative efforts important to our constituents.
One issue I campaigned for and about which I feel strongly, is requiring state government to televise its proceedings so people can see what is really going on. I have observed that without televised proceedings, it is more difficult for citizens to view legislative events in their proper context. The number of procedural votes and other complicating issues create a cloud of confusion that sometimes allow politicians to take public positions on controversial issues that they in actuality are voting to sabotage.
If proceedings were televised, people would be able to see not only how their elected Representatives voted, but they would have full access to the debate and procedural votes as well. That way, a Representative would have to answer to a more informed electorate when he returned home.
Televising government proceedings has always been an issue I advocated. Nine years ago I decided to become more informed and involved in civic affairs. Following that desire, I attended a number of City Council meetings in both Guthrie and Edmond. The thing I noticed about the Guthrie meetings was that rarely were members of the public in attendance. I concluded that with all the demands faced by Oklahoma's working families, it is difficult for people to set aside time to keep track of government. And,...a government not monitored by the people will certainly face an increased risk of failing to be responsible to the people. I am strongly convinced that when government is televised, just one elected official brave enough to ask tough questions can hold the government responsible, and the people can see what is really transpiring.
In 2001, I campaigned for the Guthrie City Council on a platform of televising Council proceedings. The other City Council members supported this proposal and because of the fantastic dedication of city staff, the Guthrie government channel telecast is now one of the best in the state. If you have not viewed these proceedings, I would suggest you visit cityofguthrie.com and click on the "current city council meeting" link on the front page. This fall, the Guthrie television cameras were rolling as House Speaker Lance Cargill visited Guthrie as part of a town hall meeting. Cargill's visit demonstrated the exciting possibilities of televised government and was an important step in securing the support of House leadership for the proposal to televise state government.
With the assistance of the Executive Director of the Oklahoma Educational Television Authority (OETA) we have refined what I believe is a strong proposal. If enacted, it will broadcast both House and Senate proceedings. If the proposal passes this spring, broadcasting would likely begin with the next legislative session.
It is an honor to work at providing better access to government. Hopefully, the effort will meet with success this legislative session.
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
Monday, December 10, 2007
One concern I recently heard about from District 31 has been that of the attempt to reverse last year's successes in implementing immigration reform.
When the Governor signed House Bill 1804 earlier this year, it appeared as if most of the debate surrounding illegal immigration would come to a close. However, in the last few weeks, it has become obvious that this is not the case and the issue will again be significant in the upcoming legislative session.
Known as the Oklahoma Taxpayer and Citizens Act, HB 1804 provided a clear series of reforms to the illegal immigration problem and made Oklahoma the leader in the application of immigration reform.
Key elements of the bill focused on determining work eligibility and encouraging employers to verify legal work status. The bill contained provisions to ensure taxpayer-supported benefits are made available to American citizens and legal immigrants only and gave state and local law enforcement officials the power to enforce federal immigration law – as well as restricting access by illegal aliens to driver’s licenses and ID cards.
The author of the bill, Randy Terrill, has indicated he will follow up 1804 with a bill he is calling the "son of HB 1804.” It would make English the official language in Oklahoma, document how many illegal immigrants attend taxpayer funded schools and provide disincentive for those who come to the United States illegally in order to insure citizenship for their children. Terrill would like to see the state able to refuse to issue birth certificates for these individuals, instead forcing them to request them from the consulate of the parents' nation of origin. The "son of 1804" would provide financial incentives to local law enforcement agencies to send officers to federal immigration training. Terrill also wants a bill that would reverse the recent creation of a permanent and unconditional expansion of the welfare system by the Oklahoma Health Care Authority, which voted to approve emergency rules granting taxpayer-subsidized medical coverage to pregnant illegal aliens on the theory that the new child will be a U.S. citizen. Up until now, illegal aliens were prohibited from Medicaid prenatal services.
Those who have come to depend on illegal immigrant employees have made it clear that they intend not only to oppose new reforms but to try to reverse some of them.
There is no doubt that advocates who wish to stop reform and maintain the current status quo have deep pockets and will be willing to spend large amounts of money to get their way.
Even so, I am confident there are enough members of the House of Representatives committed to defeating attempts to roll back reforms already passed into law. I am hopeful that future common sense reforms will also be passed and am especially committed to the reform of making English the official language of the State of Oklahoma.
If you would like to visit with Rep. Terrill in person, you will soon have that opportunity. He has agreed to attend one of the House District 31 upcoming "Town Hall" meetings. For more information about these meetings, please visit www.housedistrict31.com or you may call my office at 557-7350.
Monday, December 3, 2007
One of my most enjoyable jobs as State Representative has been providing those I represent with a weekly update on events occurring in State Government. I have also enjoyed the opportunity to respond to feedback from these updates.
Some of the most pronounced and decisive feedback received has been response to the inappropriately high level of compensation received by Oklahoma legislators. In a recent column, I wrote about a controversial decision by the legislative compensation board to give Oklahoma's part time legislators the same medical benefits as Oklahoma state employees. This results in an approximate increase of twelve thousand dollars per year for Oklahoma legislators (although it is important to note that legislators without family dependants will be unable to leverage that amount of money). This is in addition to the third highest pay in the nation for a part time legislature, a large per diem expense reimbursement for some legislators, and a retirement system that is paying some retired elected officials more than they made while holding office.
The feedback I have received on this issue has come from people representing a wide range of professions and walks of life who are outraged at paying a high level of taxes inappropriately spent in this manner.
While I agree and sympathize 100% with this outrage, I believe it is important to communicate some good news and acknowledge that there are efforts to bring change to the system.
One of these efforts was launched this year by Edmond State Representatives Ken Miller and Marion Cooksey. Miller and Cooksey proposed a bill that would enable legislators to opt out of the state insurance program, presumably to be covered by their own employment plans. This would save taxpayers thousands of dollars. The bill passed the House but was inexplicably tied up in the Senate.
An effort by Representative Trebor Worthen to deny retirement benefits to legislators who commit a felony was successfully voted into law. This common sense legislation was necessitated by the revelation that former Senator Gene Stipe was still eligible for thousands of dollars of taxpayer funds.
Earlier this year I submitted legislation that would lower the pay of Oklahoma legislators to the average salary of Oklahomans and keep it indexed to that average. I believe this would provide the important free market concept of incentive to Oklahoma legislators to support pro-growth policies, such as elimination of the state income tax. However, because this proposal requires a large upfront cut in legislative salaries, it faces an uphill battle.
As always, I am committed to supporting common sense reforms regarding how your taxpayer dollars are spent.