Monday, December 27, 2010

Better Late Than Never

Last month the House of Representative’s Government Modernization Committee conducted a study to examine cost savings and efficiencies which could occur as a result of consolidating state agencies. As part of that study, we heard testimony about the unusually high number of agencies, boards and commissions (ABCs) which are a component of Oklahoma state government.

One of the reports stated that as of 2007, Oklahoma had about 520 ABCs. The report referenced a 1995 study which was commissioned by Governor Frank Keating. The 1995 study stated that Oklahoma had over 360 ABCs at that time and indicated that this diversified approach to governance made it difficult to manage related functions, and impossible to hold someone accountable for minimal results.

The Keating report was produced by a Commission of Government Performance. The Commission was comprised of business and community leaders from across the state working with a team of 50 state employees.

The Commission pointed to Oklahoma’s weak gubernatorial powers as a reason for the inefficiency of state government processes. With power spread across so many different ABCs, Oklahoma’s Governor simply isn’t empowered to make state government more accountable. By proxy, this means that Oklahomans do not have a method to hold government accountable and make it more efficient.

The report stated that other studies going back as far as 1928 have found that Oklahoma government could be more effective if the chief executive officer were given more authority to change state government. The Keating report described the current situation as a situation where the chief executive officer could call a meeting and the managers of state did not have to attend. The report opined that this is no way to run such a large enterprise.

The Commission detailed that this fragmented organization process produces a clear lack of line of authority and an “unresponsive, duplicative and costly state government.”

Unfortunately, the Keating report was ignored by Oklahoma lawmakers. Today, instead of shrinking in size, Oklahoma government is much larger than before and the Governor does not appear to have been empowered to effect change.

Due to the budget downturn and the recent changes in many of the statewide elected office positions, I believe we will have an opportunity to incorporate some of the suggested reforms this year. We must finally start to reduce the number of Oklahoma agencies, boards and commissions and we should also empower the Governor with the ability to remove members of boards and commissions.

This will finally give Oklahomans the opportunity to start downsizing state government. If these changes are accepted, when we vote for the position of Governor in the future, we will be voting for a chief executive officer who will have the ability to require Oklahoma government to use our taxpayer dollars wiser and more efficiently.

The report’s suggestions should have been followed 15 years ago. I do believe in the “better late than never” adage, and feel we should incorporate these ideas for reform as soon as possible.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Open Record and Meeting Law for the Legislature

This past week presented the first of a series of legislative deadlines which legislators met in order to propose and advance legislation for the upcoming session. Lawmakers were required to meet a December 10 deadline when they were required to submit the first request for registering possible legislation for the 2011 session.

Throughout the year I am asked to propose any number of ideas. These requests range from those proposed by constituents who contact my office regarding a needed change in the law which directly affects them to suggested changes in the law to allow for more efficiency and transparency in Oklahoma government.

I document these suggestions when I receive them and before the first submission deadline, I begin the process of reviewing this documentation. It is my task to select from the list of possible legislation so that it comes as close as possible to meeting the rules which limit the number of bills which a Representative is allowed to sponsor.

It is my practice to see that my legislative proposals include a balance of constituent ideas and aggressive attempts to enact significant reforms and government modernization proposals which I need to sponsor as Chair of the House Government Modernization, Accountability and Transparency Committee.

I feel this balance is important because it ensures that I represent the voice of my constituents, advance new ideas for reform, while also passing legislation which makes government more accountable. This strategy has allowed me to win approval for a series of reform minded legislation in the past few years while also introducing aggressive new reform concepts which I believe will be eventually approved by the Legislature.

One of the bills I intend to sponsor and which I believe will have a significant impact on making Oklahoma government more responsible to the citizens is a proposal to require that the Oklahoma Legislature comply with Oklahoma's open record and open meeting laws.

These two very important laws require Oklahoma governing bodies to conduct business according to a set of rules which are designed to ensure your right as a citizen to know that what happens in government is upheld. However, the Legislature is exempted from these laws. In my view this is wrong, and I believe the Legislature should abide by the same laws they ask other Oklahoma governing bodies to abide by.

This is not a ground-breaking proposal. Other state governments already require that their legislative bodies follow their respective state’s open record and open meeting laws.

One of the most important aspects of this law would be the cessation of legislative caucuses discussing issues behind closed doors. An important principle of open meeting laws is the concept which dictates that a majority of a governing body should never meet behind closed doors to discuss business. This concept helps keep policy makers from taking a public stand which is different from the position taken in private.

An open records law would also establish a clear set of criteria which would govern which legislative records should be kept private and which should be made public.

I know that passing this particular proposal will be a difficult challenge, but I am convinced that it is the right thing to do.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Getting Specific

One of my favorite stories about Oklahoma history involves the Oklahoma Constitutional Convention which met in Guthrie and the development of the preamble to the Oklahoma Constitution.

You may recall that the preamble reads as follows: “Invoking the guidance of Almighty God, in order to secure and perpetuate the blessing of liberty; to secure just and rightful government; to promote our mutual welfare and happiness, we, the people of the State of Oklahoma, do ordain and establish this Constitution.”

The initial drafting of the preamble was assigned to a committee of the convention. That committee created a first draft which initially referred to God only as “the Supreme Ruler of the Universe."

The draft was met with opposition and the members of the committee were asked if their mothers had taught them to pray to “the Supreme Ruler of the Universe.”

The chair of the convention strongly insisted that the delegates could not leave “God” out of the constitution and the next day he introduced a substitute which included the words “Almighty God” -- which we use as our constitutional preamble to this day.

The founders of our state wanted very specifically to acknowledge the existence of God and our need for His guidance.

This specificity was also reflected in our nation’s Declaration of Independence when our founding fathers declared that our rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness come from our Creator and it is the responsibility of government to preserve these rights. By acknowledging God’s existence and attributing our unalienable rights to His providence, our founding fathers were memorializing an important definition of the true purpose of government which we acknowledge to this day.

I was reminded of this story after a recent meeting of Republican legislators where the attendees were asked to develop a document declaring the principles by which Republican House members will govern during the upcoming year.

Republican legislators had a choice to make. They could have expressed support for traditional values by making a generic statement to this effect. This approach would provide values voters with the comfort of a token gesture -- and is all too often the "safe" approach to take because it provides acknowledgment of important principles while not running the risk of offending those who are embarrassed by the faith-based principles with which Oklahoma has been so identified.

However, rather than providing this level of token support, Republican policy makers chose to amend their platform to include a much more specific statement which affirmed that we will support policies which defend Judeo-Christian values.

This action made the clear statement that we know this specific values framework is the basis for our legal system and we are not afraid of pointing to the importance of recognizing and preserving this values system.

This specificity was copied throughout the Republican Representatives’ policy document as the attendees took clear stands on a number of issues which are important to Oklahomans.

I certainly appreciated this, as all too often politicians are not courageous enough to take clear stands on the issues of today. Even if all voters do not agree on every one of these specific topics, I believe that citizens do appreciate when political leaders have the courage to take a clear stand and stop playing the tired political game of making token vague and general statements on issues of importance to Oklahomans.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Our Opportunity

This next legislative session will represent the first session during which Republicans will have control of both the legislative and executive branches of state government. As you might imagine this has raised the expectations of Oklahoma conservatives who desire the reform of state government.

In the past, even though Republicans controlled the Legislature, the Democrats remained in charge of the executive branch and that fact was used as a crutch that was baked into time-delaying processes utilized by Republican legislators who were less inclined to aggressively advocate for needed reforms.

For instance, reform legislation could be held up in committee with the argument that the governor would veto it and it would be wrong to make Republicans take a tough vote on it.

In a more complex example, Republican legislators were placed under heavy pressure to agree to fee and tax increases because the agreement had been negotiated with the Democrats in the executive branch. We were told that we risked a special legislative session if we did not vote for these increases and honor the agreement which had been negotiated. We were also told that a special session would risk exposing Republicans to defeat at the polls.

I never thought my vote should be influenced by the fact that our legislative leaders had negotiated a deal with the Democrats, or theoretical political ramifications, so I voted my conscience and did not play the political game. I figured that if enough of us voted according to the principles we campaigned on and actually defeated the government-expanding compromise agreement, the Democrats would be forced to deal with the political reality that Oklahoma's conservative populace demanded true reforms.

In my view, those compromises thwarted that day of reckoning, and to this day many of the needed institutional transforming reforms of state government have never taken place.

However, I do understand why so many of my Republican colleagues accepted this pragmatism and don’t hold it against them for buying into the status-quo arguments. After all, they were basically being told that we had to agree to hold our noses and vote for the status-quo so that Republicans could be elected to office and then we could reverse the fee increases and institute true reform. Well, that time is now! With a solid Republican majority in the Oklahoma House and Senate and a Republican in the governor’s office, there are no more excuses for not doing the right thing.

This is the time when we will see if the story that we were being told at that time was true.

It is my hope that we will be able to aggressively seek to bring reform to those state government processes into which generations of Democrat office holders have allowed so many inefficiencies and waste to accumulate.

I certainly intend to keep you informed as to whether or not this is the case as this year’s session gets underway.