Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Leap Tall Buildings?

Printed from the Urban Tulsa Weekly website:

Look, up at the capitol--is it Superman or Clark Kent?

By Arnold Hamilton

If House Speaker-designate Kris Steele isn't the most anxious guy at the state Capitol these days, he should be.

The Shawnee Republican is the GOP majority's choice to grab hold of the gavel for the 2011 session, succeeding current Speaker Chris Benge, who is being forced from office by term limits.

The problem is, Steele's yearlong ascension to power unfolds just as the House Republican caucus is showing signs of morphing into the political equivalent of a hornet's nest.

The very public dispute between Benge and Rep. David Dank of Oklahoma City over Dank's proposed property tax cap began escalating less than a fortnight before the session opens Feb. 1, threatening to fracture the GOP coalition.

In fact, Dank demanded that Benge "step up" and support the tax plan or "step down and let someone else lead the House." Benge quickly fired back, accusing Dank of "political grandstanding at its worst."

In the middle sits Steele, a genial, bespectacled 36-year-old Methodist minister whose ascension to power could be short-circuited if he is unable to help preserve caucus harmony and if notions of a palace coup take root.

Steele's position is especially tricky because he currently serves as speaker pro tempore--the House's No. 2 position. This isn't a mostly ceremonial job like lieutenant governor or vice president. The pro tem actually sits in the speaker's chair every day, wielding power over who speaks and who doesn't--and for how long. He also is routinely called upon to interpret murky, arcane House rules, a power all but certain to produce bruised egos and short tempers.

Not surprisingly, the speaker pro tem is rarely the most popular guy in the House Chamber--and on occasion might well be the most despised.

Steele glided fairly through his four terms as a state representative, winning praise from both his GOP colleagues and from Democrats as a workhorse, not a show horse. His efforts on behalf of children, low-income Oklahomans and seniors won him numerous awards and accolades.

As he rose into leadership, however, Steele made compromises that turned off staunch allies and created more than a few enemies.

One of his biggest mistakes, in my view, was throwing families with autistic children under the bus this past session. Steele had been working closely with those families for several years to require insurance companies in Oklahoma to cover autism--a proposal known as Nick's Law.

As Steele well knows, autism is a ticking time bomb for state taxpayers--early, sustained treatment is less costly and can help sufferers lead more normal, more productive lives; those who go without help often need expensive, lifelong care, typically in institutional settings.

Unfortunately, big insurance is a powerful force these days at the Capitol, perhaps even the most influential. With designs on the speakership, Steele jettisoned the common-sense proposal--which was killed in committee--and instead pursued legislation designed to increase the number of doctors trained to diagnose and treat autism.

Question: What good does it do if rank-and-file Oklahomans can't afford to be diagnosed or treated?

What's worse, Steele argued it was the best lawmakers could do. Baloney. It was the Insurance Industry Profits Protection Act of 2009, pure and simple. It's a shell game, shifting costs from insurance companies (which would cover treatment for children) to taxpayers (who would pay for much costlier adult care).

Credible studies show mandating autism coverage has no appreciable affect on premiums. In other words, it doesn't hurt insurance company profits. But big insurance doesn't want the Legislature to start approving any more mandates--none have been required since Republicans gained a House majority in 2004. The last mandate? Mammograms. Can you imagine where we'd be if women weren't encouraged--and insurance didn't cover--the annual exams?

Similarly, the dust-up over property taxes is the result of another case of legislative cost-shifting.

Dank, an affable 71-year-old grandfather and former newspaper publisher, wants to cap annual property tax increases at three percent and freeze property tax rates for seniors over 65, many of whom are on fixed incomes. Seems reasonable.

The problem is, public schools and other essential government services rely heavily on property taxes. Dank's proposal would put a serious financial crimp in those long-term services, unless lawmakers pony up additional dollars.

That, however, would require legislators to either make significant cuts in other government services or raise taxes to offset the loss, neither of which is palatable politically. They would prefer to keep the status quo--meaning that property taxes double every 13 years in Oklahoma--than be put in the position of having to answer to the voters about spending priorities or raising taxes.

It's an issue that's not going away. Dank has made that clear. And he has more than a few allies in the Legislature.

Many of the newer House members have more in common with the Tea Party activists than with the corporatists who run the House as a wholly owned subsidiary of the State Chamber of Commerce.

They might be registered Republicans, and they may share much of what has become the GOP worldview--especially when it comes to religion and knocking down the wall separating church and state--but the reality is that they identify less with their party and more with ideology.

They don't play by the old rules of party discipline that allow disagreements behind closed doors but demand lock-step unity in public.

This brings us back to Steele's tricky position. House Republicans may have decided by acclamation last fall that he would be speaker-in-waiting, but there's nothing to prevent unhappy--or ambitious--members from staging a coup before he can grab hold of the gavel.

After all, he must first survive what could well be a raucous, even angry session for lawmakers dealing with a revenue crisis that will slash state spending from $7.1 billion as recently as 2008 to only $5.3 billion available next year. Further, the makeup of the House will change in the November elections--some current members who supported Steele for speaker won't be around any longer, for example, because of term limits. The newcomers might prefer a different candidate.

If Steele, Benge and other House Republican leaders can't figure out a way to manage the personalities and issues, and if the House ends up in open revolt this session, it could end up costing Steele dearly.

-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer;

URL for this story: http://www.urbantulsa.com

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