Corp Commission race heats up with energy rates

Wednesday, 09 July 2008
After a fiery early start to their primary joust, things have been comparatively quiet in the contest between Dana Murphy and Rob Johnson. But with less than three weeks left before the July 29 primary, stormy political weather is likely ahead for the two Republican hopefuls for the Corporation Commission.

The winner of the primary will challenge Commissioner Jim Roth, a Democrat, in the November election.

Murphy, interviewed recently at a coffee shop on Automobile Alley while she campaigned in MidTown Oklahoma City, said “Every time we flip a light switch, adjust the thermostat, and pump fuel into our cars, we have been affected by the Corporation Commission.”

Murphy passed an early test when Trebor Worthen, a departing GOP state representative now working as Johnson’s consultant, blistered her after she filed for office. Worthen said Murphy behaved unethically in revising her form. Murphy said she followed the directions of election officials. Last month, state election officials held a hearing and saw a video of an official guiding Murphy’s filing, then validated her candidacy.

In comments made when he filed for the commission post, Johnson promised to make the state “more business-friendly, while fairly representing all Oklahomans.”

Murphy and Johnson have not yet debated, but were interviewed separately Sunday night on KTOK in Oklahoma City. The banter was relatively mild. In one exchange with the radio station’s anchor, Johnson accused Murphy of being “too judicial” in her approach to the job.  In her segment, Murphy asserted that the job of commissioner is “quasi-judicial” in listening to all sides in rate cases, and deciding based on law and not preferences.

In a telephone interview on Monday, Johnson told The City Sentinel he had “the most diverse and well-rounded experience” of any of the three candidates. Besides his state legislative experience, Johnson said his work “on the federal side” as a congressional aide added to his qualification. He argued, “the major issue is what kind of a commissioner you actually want.” He repeated his assertion that his opponent’s “judicial approach” would not be as effective as policy leadership in dealings with the Legislature.

One of the most important arms of state government, the commission has powers that touch many aspects of the economy. The agency is a regulatory body with unique jurisdiction combining judicial, executive and legislative powers. The plain language summary of the Commission’s purpose might mask, for some, it significance. The Corporation Commission’s purpose is:

“To regulate and enforce the laws and supervise the activities associated with the exploration and production of oil and gas; the storage and dispensing of petroleum based fuels; the establishment of rates and services of public utilities; and the operation of intrastate transportation to best serve the economic needs of the public. In the interests of the public, the commission will oversee the conservation of natural resources; avoid waste; abate pollution of the environment; and balance the rights and needs of the people with those of the regulated entities which provide essential and desirable services for the benefit of Oklahoma and its citizens.”

Elected to the Legislature in 2004, Rep. Johnson has served as a majority whip and on several committees, including Energy and Technology. His bachelor’s degree is from Oklahoma State; his law degree is from OU.

Murphy studied at the University of Central Oklahoma, and graduated with a degree in geology from Oklahoma State. She earned a law degree from Oklahoma City University while working in the gas and oil business.

Murphy told The City Sentinel, “Oil and gas are Oklahoma’s largest industry. It makes sense to elect someone who has real life experience working in the oil patch and running a very successful oil and gas law practice.” As an administrative judge, Murphy presided over some 5,000 cases. Murphy says she would be “a watchdog for all Oklahomans,” scrutinizing rate requests from utilities. She said that may mean “ruling for ratepayers on one occasion, business on another. It’s about what’s in the best interests of our state.”

Judge Murphy pointed to recent campaign stops in Blackwell, Ponca City, Newkirk, Pryor, Bixby and at Mounds Fish Fry and parade and said, “We have been able to meet many local business leaders and residents. Energy issues and the rising costs of fuel, food and power have been on the minds of many of those we meet.”

The Commission consists of three elected members, normally serving six-year terms. Gov. Brad Henry appointed Roth last fall. Either Judge Murphy or Rep. Johnson will face the popular MidTown Democrat to finish out the last two years of former Commissioner Denise Bode’s term. In two years, this year’s victor must seek a regular six-year term.

Another race, for a full term, will be decided in November. Incumbent Republican Commissioner Jeff Cloud faces Democrat Charles Gray, a veteran state representative. Murphy lost a runoff to Cloud in 2002. The third commissioner is Republican Bob Anthony, one of the longest-serving state elected officials.

About the Author:
Patrick McGuigan (M.A. in history, Oklahoma State University) is an editor at The City Sentinel, a weekly newspaper in Oklahoma City. He is the author of two books and the editor of seven, including “Law, Economics & Civil Justice: A Reform Agenda” (1994) and “Crime & Punishment in Modern America” (1986). He is a regular contributor to Tulsa Today since 2002 and once served as our Capital Editor – a position we hope McGuigan will fill again some day soon.  He is currently a research fellow at OCPA.  A state-certified teacher, for two years he taught middle-school and high-school students at a public charter alternative school.
Last Updated ( Wednesday, 09 July 2008 )