In his customary weekly session with Capitol reporters in Oklahoma City, Speaker of the House Chris Benge observed that the twelfth week of work at the 2010 Oklahoma Legislature yielded “a long week. We have processed 425 Senate bills so far, 110 to 120 of those this week. Because it was deadline week [for House processing of Senate bills] we had to work some late nights.”
Benge touted two key measures benefiting the Tulsa area from which he hales, and had a view on President Barack Obama’s support for charter school reforms that differed from the top Republican in the state Senate.
He expressed satisfaction over “our education reform package, including approval of charter school reform and performance pay for teachers.” He said this week’s bills on schooling were “important in terms of quality education and in race to the top funding.”
Concerning potentially historic legislation to expand charter schools in Oklahoma, Speaker Benge predicted Governor Henry will sign the legislation once proposals are reconciled and presented to him in final form this year. Whereas Senate President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee on Thursday said he thought Obama’s backing of charter schools hurt the concept in Oklahoma, Benge had this view, “I certainly think his support of charter schools helps. It is a unique opportunity. Since 1999 this has largely been a Republican issue. With a Democratic president supporting the idea, it’s a unique opportunity and I’d hope it gives credibility to the issue among Democrats.”
The speaker continued, “Passage of workers’ comp reforms put Oklahoma in a position to be competitive, to be attractive to businesses outside the state, and to keep those we have here in the state.”
Benge applauded Governor Brad Henry’s signature on Tulsa-related bills. One funds further work on the Gilcrease expressway, a second assures funding for the OSU-Tulsa Medical Center. Benge reflected, “The latter upholds the $5 million commitment we made last year to the residency program, and to indigent care in Tulsa.”
The speaker was asked about a controversial House proposal to limit the access of journalists to certain records touching public employees. While noting the original bill had died, he said the issue was still alive: “We are taking the time to deliberative and thoughtful. … As originally developed, the language would have prohibited any release of birth date information. That was too far.”
Benge continued, “I think there are legitimate concerns when [release of the information] involves public safety, troopers and others whose lives are in danger on a regular basis. I also think batch requests [large scale data releases for commercial purposes] seem hard.”
Pressed on that latter issue, Benge said, “I believe there should be a reason for the request, for the information that is desired.” As did Senate President Pro Tem earlier on Thursday, Speaker Benge commented on a controversy that erupted this week over water storage, potential water sales, and a pending payment the state must make to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
In a follow up discussion with CapitolBeatOK on Friday (April 23), Speaker Benge detailed his position on water issues this way: "When you consider the excess water flowing through the Southeast Oklahoma watershed into the Red River, you have 8 million acre feet annually. The usage for the entire State of Oklahoma is only 1.75 million. That is less than one-fourth of the needs of the entire state. That’s a lot of water just flowing downstream and away.”
Benge was asked if he attributed any significance to a handful of bills on which House Democrats banded together to deny enactment of emergency clauses in recent floor votes. He replied, “It seems to me that’s a function of the deadline week. We usually have something happen to cause us all to pull things together in caucus or on the floor. Our relationships over all among the members of the two parties are pretty good.”