Friday, May 29, 2009

Senator Gumm's "Senate Minute" for May 29-June 4, 2009

OKLAHOMA CITY – Hello again, everybody! As I wrote last week’s column, everything looked like we would complete our work by 5 p.m., Friday, May 22 – a full week earlier than the Constitution requires.

However, about an hour after I finished the column, the Senate hit a wall. The issue was a bill to create a chief information officer: a “computer czar,” if you will, for all of state government.

One individual, appointed by the governor, would have virtually complete control over every computer and software purchase by state government. Other states have tried this with mixed results. Our closest neighbor – Texas – tried it. The result was failure and a waste of taxpayer dollars.

I opposed the bill. Simply put, it grants too much almost unchecked power in a bureaucrat responsible only to the governor.

During my research on this bill, I did a quick search of state spending on computer equipment and software. A very conservative estimate is that state government spends $143 million every year on computer equipment and software.

The bill would give one individual incredible power over hundreds of millions of dollars in state contracts. Oklahoma has never been a state that vested so much power with any one person – even one elected by the people. We certainly have never given that much power to an appointed bureaucrat.

How did this bill throw the proverbial monkey wrench into the session? Supporters initially couldn’t get enough votes to pass it. Joining me in opposing the bill were the other 21 Democratic senators and one Republican senator.

The other 24 Republican senators present voted “yes” on the bill – but it takes 25 votes to pass a bill in the Senate. One GOP senator who could have put the measure over the top was away on a speaking engagement.

That should have been the end of it; the bill fails and we move on to other budget bills awaiting consideration. Unfortunately, the roll call on the CIO bill was left open four hours in hopes someone would change their vote and pass it. No one did.

When it became obvious there was not going to be a 25th vote Friday, the Republican leadership closed the roll, adjourned Friday’s session and brought us back for an additional day when all their members would be present. The curious part is budget bills were left undone – inducement, I suppose, for us to return after the weekend.

On Tuesday, the 25th vote to pass this bad bill was present, and it was sent to the governor. All the remaining budget bills passed; the final bill to receive legislative approval was the bill funding the Rural Economic Action Plan.

It was unnecessary drama to end the session, but the 2009 Oklahoma Legislature is finally complete. Over the next several weeks, we have much to discuss as the dust settles from this historic session.

Thanks again for reading “The Senate Minute.” Have a great week, and may God bless you all

Legislature Passes Bill Keeping Sex Offenders Out of Ice Cream Trucks

The State of Oklahoma
Atoka, Bryan, Coal, Johnston & Marshall Counties

May 25, 2009

Contact: Senator Jay Paul Gumm
State Capitol: (405) 521-5586
Durant: (580) 924-2221
Mobile: (580) 920-6990

OKLAHOMA CITY – On what was to have been the final day of the 2009 session of the Oklahoma Legislature, Sen. Jay Paul Gumm and Rep. Joe Dorman succeeded in their session-long effort to make children safer in their own neighborhoods.

The lawmakers had worked all session to pass legislation that prevents registered sex offenders from being ice cream truck vendors. While the measure enjoyed unanimous support in the Oklahoma Senate, a committee chair in the House of Representatives continually blocked the proposal.

“I never understood the opposition to this common sense proposal,” said Gumm, a Democrat from Durant. “Ice cream trucks are in countless neighborhoods in our state, and ice cream truck operators are in close contact with children – especially in the summer months. We were not about to let this proposal fall through the cracks.”

Dorman, D-Rush Springs, said the original bill was drafted in response to a number of high profile cases throughout the nation. “While we were fighting to make this idea a law, there was a frightening situation involving an ice cream truck in Chickasha near my district this very year,” he said.

The lawmakers’ ice cream vendor language was added to Senate Bill 1020, a bill to strengthen state laws on domestic violence and increase penalties for child pornography. On Friday, both the Senate and House of Representative gave final approval to bill – unanimously in the Senate and overwhelmingly in the House; it is now on Governor Henry’s desk.

If signed into law, the bill would criminalize the operation of ice cream trucks by sex offenders, with a punishment of up to two and a half years in prison and/or a fine. Further, the measure requires ice cream vending companies to search the sex offender database to determine if any employees are convicted offenders.

The company would be required to keep proof of the search. Upon discovering any employee is violating the law, the company would be required to contact the district attorney with that information.

“We have to take every potential precaution in our effort to protect children from predators,” Gumm said. “It would have been irresponsible to simply wait until a tragedy occurs in our own back yard before we addressed the issue.

“I’m relieved that we were able to reach an agreement and close this loophole; passage of this law allows Oklahoma parents and children to rest easier.”

The lawmakers expressed gratitude to Sen. Jonathan Nichols, R-Norman, and Rep. Randy Terrill, R-Moore, who agreed to add the proposal to SB 1020.

“Both Jonathan and Randy looked beyond partisan politics and helped pass a bill that will keep children safer,” said Gumm. “This bill shows what we can accomplish when the power of ideas triumphs over partisan concerns. I appreciate their essential help on this important bill.”

Dorman also expressed gratitude to his fellow legislators for passing the measure.

“As lawmakers, we have a responsibility to make our state a safe place for the most vulnerable members of our society,” he said. “I’m pleased that members of the Legislature recognized the need to be proactive on this issue and eliminate a dangerous risk.”

The language approved Friday also got positive reviews from the ice cream vending industry. Chris T. Long, legislative chairperson with the International Association of Ice Cream Vendors, said the measure should be considered a national model for the issue.

“In the end, I believe your final draft…should be presented as a model bill on this issue in the future,” he wrote in a letter to Gumm. “With your permission, I will be archiving this bill so that it can be presented to other states, cities, or municipalities in the future.”

If signed into law, SB 1020 would take effect July 1. Governor Henry has 15 days following the adjournment of the session to pass judgment on the bill. The session is expected to adjourn by May 27.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Open Door Policy - May 26, 2009

The legislature ended in a roar this year as we saw members required to vote past the deadline agreed to early on for adjournment. The Senate held a vote open for almost four hours on a bill to create a Chief Information Officer’s position and agency for the State of Oklahoma . Republican members were insistent this position be created, yet one of their Senate members was away at a speech out of state on Friday and they could not get the necessary 25 votes. This forced them to extend session until Tuesday to consider House bills. The House leadership at this point placed this language in a bill and ran it on Friday to the disapproval of the Democratic members. I visited with a friend who has experience in this field and was told there are no true cost savings by creating a central agency for technology for all the state agencies, simply this allows a new agency to be created and an expansion of government with total control over state agencies and their technology programs with little accountability and oversight. The House also argued about the time of adjournment and its extension and the vote occurred at the deadline on Friday (some of us argued it was actually past the deadline when it was finally passed, but the presiding officer stated the time limit was not yet reached). The House and Senate had previously set a time of adjournment and it had to be revised through a resolution (which has not been adhered to over the past two years and had to be extended each of the deadline weeks).
The House proceeded to vote until around 9:30 pm on Friday and passed several bills which dealt with the budget. The House of Representatives then recessed to the call of the presiding officer should there be a need to reconvene to deal with business from the Senate. The Senate reconvened on Tuesday morning and took up the final bills of the session. There is little chance of a special session this summer, but there is always the chance should Governor Henry feel an issue is important enough for us to address. Otherwise, I will soon be back home for a while and looking forward to seeing everyone and getting back to the normal routine at the coffee shops. This week I am a delegate to my church’s annual conference and next week I am a participant in the State Firefighter’s Convention.
It was an interesting session this year as the Republicans controlled both bodies of the legislature for the first time in state history. It was also a tough year in that we had to cut several hundred million dollars out of the state budget. The stimulus funds provided by the federal government helped meet shortfalls in education, transportation, public safety and health care, along with assistance in areas of commerce. The Governor designated State Auditor and Inspector Steve Burrage to oversee the use of the funds in order to provide accountability. I have worked with Auditor Burrage on several issues this year and he is an excellent elected official in this capacity and I have confidence he will monitor all uses of these funds and provide accurate oversight. The Republican and Democratic members worked well together on the process to cut many agencies, yet hold harmless some which provide vital services.
I had two excellent students work for me at the Capitol over this past week. Nicole Barton of Lawton served as a page for the entire week and Steven Doyle of Elgin worked for two days as an office aide. Both students were a great help and I want to wish them the best over the summer and into the next school year. I will be opening up opportunities for pages and office aides for next session, so if you are a high school student and are interested, please contact my office.
Interim study requests are due this week, so I will be working on issues over the summer. Two which I have turned in are to look at a permanent funding source for emergency management costs related to disasters and to provide municipalities the opportunity to upgrade stoplights within their jurisdiction on highways to allow for pressure plates to activate stoplights and to find ways for this to qualify for federal transportation assistance. Should you have an idea for bills for the legislature, please contact my office or drop me an email with the suggestion. We will begin reviewing these studies sometime in August and each representative has the opportunity to submit ten ideas to approval or rejection by Speaker Chris Benge.
It is an honor to represent your views at the State Capitol. If you wish to contact me and discuss one of these or another issue, I can be reached at my office in Oklahoma City toll-free at 1-800-522-8502, or directly at 1-405-557-7305. My e-mail address is at work. My mailing address is PO Box 559 , Rush Springs , OK 73082 and my website is on the Internet. Thank you for taking time to read this column and I look forward to seeing you soon.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Pay-As-You-Go Road Districts and Guarding the Initiative Petition Process

In 2007, I was contacted by a member of a rural Logan County road district who explained that one of the big challenges facing the district was Oklahoma's statutory scheme which encourages public boards to incur debt for their long-term projects instead of allowing them to participate in a pay-as-you-go project where no debts would be incurred.

He asked me to sponsor a bill that would allow them to avoid this unnecessary debt. The principle, while simple to explain, is somewhat complicated to express in statutory language and the bill was defeated when I introduced it to the House in 2008. I brought the bill back for consideration this year, and with the help of Senate author Randy Brogdon, we were able to win legislative approval.

The pay-as-you-go principle is a fantastic plan. I believe that all levels of government entities incur debt too often and pay millions of dollars in unnecessary interest. The savings from implementing House Bill 1294 will stay in the people’s pockets where it belongs, instead of being used to go to unnecessary fees and interest.

Another interesting aspect about this bill is that it exposes the fact that state statutes tend to encourage public boards to issue bonded indebtedness. If the no-debt concept can be proven to work in a road district, it might be able to be expanded to cities, counties, public trusts and school boards that wish to fund capital improvements.

And, of course, I am happy that it better enables road districts to improve their roads. Anyone in Logan County can tell you about the deplorable condition of many county roads and this is a tool that will hopefully help to solve that problem.

Another bill I authored and that was recently approved by the legislature is Senate Bill 800 which was sponsored in the Senate by Senator Anthony Sykes.

I am a big believer in the right of Oklahomans to take action through the initiative petition process, despite inaction from the legislature. It is through this process that important reforms have occurred in the past, such as legislative term limits and a cap on the ability of legislators to raise taxes.

The opponents of these petitions can sometimes simply wait until the petitioners go through the time and expense of circulating a petition and then challenge the petition in court based on minor technicalities, such as a mistake in the wording of the ballot title, for example. You can imagine how this serves as a deterrent to those who wish to circulate a petition because they fear investing the time and money to pass the petition when it could be thrown out because of a small technicality.

SB 800 separates the protest process of the petition's validity based on the quality of the signatures from the protest of the ballot title. This means that in order to throw out a petition for technical reasons, a protest must occur before the petition is passed out. This has the positive affect of allowing both the circulators and the signatories of a petition to know that the petition they are working on is valid.

This is a positive reform that will help protect one of our rights as citizens to change bad laws through the initiative petition process.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Senator Gumm's "Senate Minute" for May 22-28, 2009

OKLAHOMA CITY – Hello again, everybody! As I write this week’s column, I am working in the Senate chamber on the final day of the 2009 session of the Oklahoma Legislature.

The adjournment came a week earlier than required by the Constitution; the early adjournment was possible because of a bipartisan budget compromise reached early on the final week. Writing the budget – the most important job of the Legislature – was made far more difficult because of the $900 million shortfall we faced when the session began four months ago.

With hard work, and considerable help from federal stimulus dollars, we were able to balance the budget without breaking into the state’s “Rainy Day Fund.” The state’s savings account is designed to shore up the budget when times are at their worst.

We are in uncertain economic times, and I felt it was incredibly important to protect the “Rainy Day Fund” this year. We hope the national economic slowdown is near its end, but next year, state revenues could be worse. Still, we are in far better shape than most of our sister states.
That reality led me to the conclusion that this was not the year to open up the “Rainy Day Fund.” Thankfully, my colleagues agreed.

This year’s budget saw many agencies take a seven percent cut, with the exception of education, health care and public safety. Those were held harmless, and some educational functions received a moderate increase.

That is yet another piece of evidence to show that the greatest earthly resource we have is the human resource. Education is the means by which we have the opportunity to reach our potential – to become what God intends for all of us.

This was not a budget everyone liked – but given the economic realities our nation is facing, it was as good a budget as could have been written. It will not be without some pain; some important programs were cut.

As the final week began, many of us from rural Oklahoma were deeply concerned with the budget agreement. The Rural Economic Action Plan – or REAP – was completely stripped from the budget. REAP is a vital program that ensures smaller communities have resources to make critical infrastructure improvements.

Beginning with Senate Democrats’ refusal to support the $7.2 billion general appropriations bill, it became apparent that without REAP, the budget agreement would collapse. A bipartisan effort ultimately saved this important program – and the entire budget agreement – with a cut of seven percent from the previous year’s $15 million allocation.

The agreement to save REAP is a perfect example of a session marked by both partisanship and bipartisan cooperation. In the next several editions of “The Senate Minute,” I will discuss bills passed, missed opportunities and the legislative struggles that are part of the history that will be written about the 2009 session of the Oklahoma Legislature.

Thanks again for reading “The Senate Minute,” have a great week and may God bless you all.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Impact of Substance Abuse

This issue of substance abuse is a major issue, and one of the most significant policy issues facing the legislature which I have seen first hand in my capacity on several legislative committees.

Having served on the Homeland Security Committee, I can speak to the fact that much cost is placed on the taxpayers by those who choose to engage in illegal substance abuse even though they are not caught or incarcerated. The obvious cost of their action is to force a large level of investment in law enforcement resources. However, a not so obvious cost is the destruction and devastation being caused to so many lives because these individuals are in fact funding the criminals who are providing the illegal substance.

This really hit home recently when an acquaintance of some of my friends was killed in Mexico by Mexican drug cartels when they mistakenly identified him as an opponent. To add insult to injury his friends and family proceeded to become possible targets of the cartel as the drug runners no doubt feared their potential testimony.

These groups are being funded by the Americans' who are engaging in drug use. I believe the individuals that are thoughtlessly funding these groups through their purchases of illegal drugs are responsible third parties to this death and destruction.

As a member of the Human Services Committee, I saw first hand the level of stress that is placed on the Department of Human Services as they fight a losing battle against the havoc wreaked on families by substance abuse. As a member of the Criminal Justice and Corrections Committee, I know the challenge faced by the state's corrections system as a tremendous burden is being placed on the taxpayer for the ever increasing cost of incarcerating so many Oklahomans.

I think this can be largely attributed to the fact that traditional values are coming under attack like never before. In bygone days those who were tempted to engage in substance abuse would probably have a strong family and church structure that could provide them with the support that they needed. Now days, as family values continue to face attack on all fronts that support network continues to crumble.

The government either through incarceration or human services is little substitute for the family and the church. As in all too many other areas the government is simply ineffective in dealing with these issues.

Do we really want the organization that runs the local bureaucracy also in charge of trying to change peoples lives?

Unless people's hearts change there is little that the government can do. This is where the church must step in, in order to encourage people to commit their lives to God and receive the help that only He can provide.

Ultimately the answers to these issues must be provided by individuals of faith. And, I believe it is important for state government to allow easy access to the faith community to both the state's human services and corrections networks.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Taking Another Stand for States' Rights

This week, the Oklahoma House of Representatives once again voted to support a House Resolution authored by State Representative Charles Key which sends a message to the federal government regarding states' rights. This is Key’s second proposal which has been necessitated by a previous version approved in the House and Senate, but vetoed by the Governor.

The resolution seeks to reassert Oklahoma’s sovereignty under the Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and according to the resolution’s language, serves as “Notice and Demand to the federal government, to cease and desist, effective immediately, mandates that are beyond the scope of these constitutionally delegated powers.”

The resolution makes a firm statement on behalf of local control.

I continue to firmly support local control because the ability of the people to make a difference is greatly enhanced when the power to change the law is close to the people.

For instance, people have very little opportunity to make a difference in federal policy. They can call their Congressmen or US Senators, but in the big scheme of things, it is hard for even a federal official to change policy because he/she is only one out of several hundred. This means that people have very limited ability to change unfair federal mandates.

On the other hand, people have a little more ability to change policy at the state level. You can call me as your State Representative and I can have some voice in changing egregious policy, because I am 1 out of 149 legislators. In addition, I can sponsor up to eight bills each year in order to reflect the desires of the people I represent. If a parent or teacher is negatively influenced by a bad state mandate, with a lot of effort we can make a difference.

However, if the power is concentrated at the local level of government, then people have a tremendous voice, because they can easily contact their city councilman, county commissioner or school board member. Rarely do these boards have more than 10 members, so it is quite possible and relatively simple for the affected individual to contact every member of the board to make sure their side of the story is heard. If local officials are not responsive to the values presented, the way for people to change policy at that point is simply by voting for a new local official.

I believe that as much power as possible should be placed in the entities that are closest to the people and I believe this was also an important principle to our founding fathers which is why they attempted to make this concept clear in the Tenth Amendment to our country's Constitution.

Another reason the people have a much greater voice at the local level is because powerful special interests and lobbyists have a tremendous investment in federal and state level politicians. At the local level there is very little influence welded by these groups as they can not afford to invest in every local official.

Unfortunately, years of aggressive federal government expansion has eroded these principles and it is my hope that as more states adopt states' right resolutions and laws, we will see the start of a reversal of this trend.

Federal mandates are affecting our lives in a number of ways and in the future I plan to share some of the examples of how the federal bureaucracy's unfortunate regulations are negatively affecting local residents.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Senator Gumm's "Senate Minute" for May 8-14, 2009

OKLAHOMA CITY – Hello again, everybody! As expected, the differences among policymakers are becoming sharper as the session nears its conclusion.

Education is one of the policy areas in which there are clear differences among those of us in the Legislature. The focus of much of the debate this session has been on Senate Bill 834.

Euphemistically called “The School District Empowerment Act,” the measure is designed – over the next five years – to make every public school in Oklahoma a charter school. Charter schools, which today only are allowed in Oklahoma and Tulsa counties, have virtually no regulatory oversight beyond their local school boards.

Depending on to whom you talk, SB 834 either would strengthen public schools or wipe away decades of progress and begin the slow demise of Oklahoma’s public educational system. For me, the answer is clear: There has never been a greater threat to Oklahoma’s public schools than SB 834.

Standards that Oklahomans, for the last 20 years, have wanted our schools to have would no longer have applied under this bill. One of the most important of the standards that would have been ended by SB 834 is the classroom size limitation enacted as part of a major educational reform bill passed almost 20 years ago.

Limiting the size of classes ensures our children are in classes small enough for them to get adequate attention from teachers. It is one of the greatest advances of the last 20 years, and it would have been ended under SB 834.

Late this week, Governor Henry vetoed this very dangerous bill. In his veto message, he noted several other state mandates – standards we expect of our schools – would have ended under this bill. Full-day Kindergarten could have been on the chopping block, along with alternative school programs.

The bill would have made school librarians and counselors optional. Both are, in my judgment, critical to positive student outcomes.

Also, the measure would have done an amazing disservice to our teachers by weakening or eliminating their rights and benefits, including due-process rights. We entrust to teachers the most important resource we have – our children. Teachers should be accorded the respect reflective of that fact. SB 834 does not accord teachers anywhere near that level of respect.

Frustrated with the opposition to the bill, the senator who wrote it suggested those of us against the bill should just do away with local school boards if we would not empower them. The key to any successful regulatory plan is balance; local control always will be a part of successful educational efforts. SB 834 would have wiped out that balance.

For all these reasons, I strongly opposed this very dangerous bill when it came through the Legislature. Further, I will vehemently oppose any effort to override the governor’s very wise veto of what is a very bad bill.

Thanks again for reading “The Senate Minute.” Have a great week, and may God bless you all.


Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Autism Bill Only “Relieves Political Pressure” – Senator Gumm

OKLAHOMA CITY – Following is a statement by Senator Jay Paul Gumm, D-Durant, author of “Nick’s Law” relating to the enactment of Senate Bill 135:

“Sadly, this bill will do nothing to relieve the pressure on families struggling to care for children with autism. The measure was designed to relieve political pressure on legislators who refuse to even consider ‘Nick’s Law,’ which would require health insurance to cover diagnosis and treatment of autism.

“There is nothing wrong with this bill, just like there is nothing wrong with a pack of shingles at a construction site. If you try to put the shingles on before you pour the foundation, you are doomed to failure. As Governor Henry wisely noted when he signed the bill, the foundation is insurance coverage of autism. Absent that, Senate Bill 135 is doomed to failure.

“The therapists that will be trained under this bill will be unable to make a living in Oklahoma because families still will be unable to afford the applied behavioral analysis therapies they offer – just as they are today. The reason is that there is nothing in Senate Bill 135 that would even remotely help families bear the cost of this critical treatment.

“More than one child per day in Oklahoma is being diagnosed with autism. That means more than one child per day is being lost because they are ‘aging out,’ getting too old for the therapies to reach. Again, this bill does nothing to help those children to day.

“For anyone to suggest that ‘relief is on the way,’ is simply not consistent with the bill. Statements like that are irresponsible and provide only the falsest of hopes to families who are begging lawmakers for real help. Families deserve better than the sham being perpetrated on them by legislators who have neither the courage nor willingness to support ‘Nick’s Law.’”

Monday, May 4, 2009

Great News for Oklahoma Taxpayers

In the upcoming days, the details surrounding the state's next budget should begin to become public as legislative leadership and the governor's office work through negotiations and determine how to account for the multi-million dollar budget shortfall.

Some may see this shortfall as a negative because it will force state leaders to cut the amount of money they control through the budget process. I believe these cuts are a fantastic opportunity, because the shortfall will force legislative leaders and agency officials to do what they would have not taken the time to do when state government largesse was increasing. It is actually in a downturn when money is less plentiful that taxpayer accountability improves, because unnecessary functions of state government are eliminated and pork spending is not as easily dispensed by politicians who wish to buy the loyalty of their constituencies.

You may recall in past years how I have described that the bills that make up the budget process are often released late in the session and have historically involved a significant amount of last-minute spending that I believe to be inappropriate. Two years ago, this spending was in the form of an excess spending bill known as the "spill over bill," which was later held to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Last year, the spending took the form of bonded indebtedness which was also unconstitutional.

This year, however, I expect taxpayers to emerge from the budget process as winners. Because of the economic downturn, the government will actually have to get smaller and eliminate some of the pork and waste from the spending process. Legislative leaders are hard at work exposing and eliminating inappropriate spending and it now appears that a number of pork programs known as "pass-throughs" will have to be eliminated and the remainder greatly reduced in size.

Legislative pass-throughs are funds given to agencies with directions from the Legislature to pass on to a private organization. That organization may use the funds for a good cause but in my view, the process is very subject to corruption and not as subject to accountability, because the private organization could easily serve as a funnel to pass the money on any number of other entities. I believe these types of funding arrangements have been at the heart of previously documented corruption in Oklahoma politics that is still being prosecuted by federal authorities.

It has been exciting to observe the process by which legislative leaders are now engaging as they fold up these pass-throughs. It is especially interesting when they justify the elimination of a pass-through by observing that it is acceptable to stop funding because it appears that the entity is not doing much with the funding. In other words, had it not been for the shortfall, these groups would still be getting money with little or no measurable return on the investment.

Unfortunately, some of the necessary reduction in the size of government will not occur because of an influx of federal stimulus money. These stimulus funds will prop up state governments all across the nation and keep them from doing the hard work of cutting the size of their governments after years of irresponsible increases in state government spending.

I will keep you informed as the budget takes form over the next three weeks and hope to be able to continue to report some very good news about your taxpayer dollars.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Senator Gumm's "Senate Minute" for May 1-7, 2009

Hello again, everybody! As we enter the final month of session, areas of both agreement and disagreement among legislators will become sharper and more clearly defined.

With fewer than 15 legislative days remaining in the 2009 session, it finally appears some work is beginning on the state’s budget. Sadly, though, it appears that Republican legislative leaders have chosen to negotiate only with themselves on the budget and have yet to bring the governor or Democratic members fully into the process.

That does not bode well for an overall budget agreement that will merit the governor’s signature or that reflects all Oklahomans’ values. Further, the Republican majorities in both the Senate and House of Representatives do not have sufficient numbers to override any potential vetoes the governor might issue on budget bills with which he does not agree.

The tactic used by the majority party to circumvent the legislative process and send certain bills the governor has vetoed to a vote of the people will not work on a budget. The budget must be completed by July 1; bills referred to the people will not appear on the ballot until November 2010.

Writing the budget should be a cooperative process between legislators from the two political parties and the process must include the governor. Because the two means available to legislative leaders to take the governor out of the process are not available on the budget, cooperation is essential to get a budget completed; there is no other option.

It will be very interesting to see how this budget battle shakes out. The stakes are incredibly high. We have $900 million less to spend on state services than we did a year ago. Cuts will be unavoidable; the key is ensuring that the most critical state services – education and public safety – are protected to the greatest extent possible.

While we in Oklahoma have been somewhat immune to the ravages of the national economic slowdown, its effects are beginning to creep into our state. Families are struggling; some fear for their jobs. Oklahomans do not want to see partisan squabbles designed more to score political points than to solve the critical challenges we face.

If ever there was a time for cooperation, it is now. The biggest question to be answered in the next three weeks is this: Will politics as usual win out? We can work together to craft a budget that reflects Oklahoma’s values or we can try to score political points. There is not much middle ground between the two outcomes.

As for me, my focus for the budget – as always – will be on ensuring the critical services on which Oklahomans depend are protected and preserved despite the economic challenges we face. Should any result achieve less than that, then this session may very well be remembered as one of the greatest failures in the history of the Legislature.

Thanks again for reading “The Senate Minute.” Have a great week, and may God bless you all.