Last week marked the end of the period during which the Oklahoma Legislature could act on legislation. During the normal course of business, a bill has to be placed on the agenda for a certain number of hours before it can be acted on, so that legislators and others can review it before a vote. However, in the last two days before the legislative deadline, these rules are waived. This year, due in part to negotiations over a number of issues, a significant amount of legislation was held up until right before the deadline. This meant a large number of bills were considered by the House and Senate without giving legislators much time to read them.
Because of these circumstances, there was opportunity for significant changes in the law to pass through without proper consideration. I enjoy the huge challenge of carefully but quickly plowing through hundreds of pages of legalise in an effort to discover these last minute changes, some of which may need to be opposed (more on that next week).
This time, however, I was happy to discover and support a very appropriate and positive change to this year's ethics reform bill. House Bill 2196, which I wrote about earlier this year, purported to place a ban on any political contributions during the legislative session. The logic followed that a politician should not be receiving donations at the same time he or she is voting on important laws.
However, this law would also apply to the challenger of an incumbent. It would have created an incumbent protection scheme so strong that it would have made it almost impossible for an incumbent to be defeated in the primary election process.
Many of Oklahoma's legislative districts are heavily tilted in favor of one party. This means that the winner of the July primary is almost certain to win in the November general election. Because HB 2196 placed a blackout on the ability of a challenger to raise money from January through June (the legislative session), a challenger who decided to run for office after the blackout began would not be able to raise money until just days prior to the primary election.
This concern was expressed by several legislators. The author of the bill listened to these concerns and proposed a fantastic change to the bill. The latest version of his bill would simply prohibit lobbyists and groups that employ them from being able to give during the legislative session. The law would help restore the balance of power in favor of the people.
I have no doubt that legislative incumbents will adapt to the new law by raising even more money than before from lobbyists who will want to hedge their bets that a law that impacts their interests will be heard in each upcoming session. However, it will be much more difficult for a lobbyist to influence the process by giving well-timed political contributions. The bill was also approved in the Senate and is off to the Governor for his signature.
Coupled with the fact that the legislature failed to take action to reverse a recent decision by the ethics commission to cut lobbyist gift-giving by one-third, I am pleased to state that the people of Oklahoma will have a stronger voice during next year's legislative session, compared to that of powerful special interests.