Monday, February 2, 2009

Hard times, tough choices as Legislature convenes

OUR VIEWS State of the State address
The Oklahoman Editorial
Published: February 3, 2009

FISCAL turmoil is destined to be written on the bookends for Brad Henry’s time in the governor’s chair. He presided over a budget crisis in his first year in office, and the governor expects next year to be even more challenging than 2009.

The volumes held in place by the bookends of 2003 and 2010 (Henry’s final year in office) carry titles touting a string of accomplishments — establishment of the EDGE endowment, building the Rainy Day Fund, teacher pay raises, outreaches to the uninsured, income tax cuts, creation of new revenue sources.

And political failures: Lawsuit reform, permanent funding for EDGE, the Republican takeover of the Legislature, health care declines.

For his penultimate State of the State address, delivered Monday, Henry authored a sober assessment of Oklahoma’s financial condition. The title, to borrow words from his speech, could be "Deep Uncertainty.”

Henry isn’t a skilled orator, so reading his speeches is generally more pleasant than hearing them. Reading the 2009 speech, one notes the paucity of plot. With so little money to spend, and so much budget-cutting to do, the address was short on specifics, bereft of ideas for new programs. He talked of anxiety, extolled the need for "thrift and sacrifice” and appealed, as do we, for an absence of "polarizing legislation that grabs the attention of bloggers and talk radio.”

The governor expressed hope, but he didn’t make it the leading character. That role instead went to a common commitment to avoid sacrificing progress on the altar of fiscal turmoil.

Unlike many Democrats in office, Henry gets it. Just as families must cut expenses, so must government. Lower taxes mean more money in household budgets. Yet he doesn’t get it when it comes to health care mandates, which lead to higher insurance premiums.

He preceded his call for a scarcity of polarization by an insistence on the autism mandate, one of the most polarizing issues of the 2008 legislative session. Henry did express support for lower-cost policies that presumably would carry few mandates, but this was a mere blurb in his book compared with the passage on the autism mandate.

The governor’s ideas for 2009 aren’t terribly ambitious. Fiscal reality has reduced the previous pages of wish lists to a few revenue-neutral desires, more like a pamphlet than a book. Any future biographer of Henry would find little to write about from this speech, but perhaps much to say on how the governor handled himself in the fiscal crises that began and will likely end his administration.

In general, he has handled himself well, balancing the need for positivism with the necessity for pragmatism. Suggested title, from his own speech: "Difficult Times, Difficult Choices.”

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