In a series of interviews at the end of the 2010 legislative session, top state leaders representing both the legislative and executive branches of Oklahoma government gave upbeat appraisals to the performance of the Legislature. Each of them Governor Brad Henry, House Speaker Chris Benge and Senate President Glenn Coffee are term-limited.
Speaking in the state Capitol’s Blue Room, Governor Henry told reporters on Friday he has been a bit wistful during the last several weeks. "This is my last legislative session. I love this job."
After 12 years in the Legislature and eight as chief executive, the popular Democrat said, "Kim and I will miss this daily work for Oklahoma, but we are at peace with ourselves. I believe that Oklahoma has a great future."
Concerning the worst revenue crunch in modern Oklahoma history, Henry said, "When I entered office as governor in 2003, we had the largest budget gap in state history up to that point, and now we’ve ended with an even larger and more challenging budget gap."
In a special word about President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee and Speaker Chris Benge, Henry said, "They are Republicans and I am a Democrat. That did not matter one bit when it came to dealing with this serious fiscal challenge. They are true consummate professionals."
Asked to characterize the session, Henry said, "We were able to shield core public services from the deepest cuts. I would rather have not had to cut any of those core services, and would have preferred not to cut the services provided by other agencies. We had no easy choices at all. We made tough decisions and did it all without increasing taxes."
Reporters questioned whether revenue enhancement measures would actually net as much for state coffers as hoped. The governor replied, "We were very conservative. We worked within the numbers we hope these changes will produce, and in every case I am aware of, listed the amount anticipated as less than what we actually hope to gain. I believe we came together and found some $300 million in revenue enhancements."
CapitolBeatOK asked if he intended to sign all the pieces of the budget. Gov. Henry answered, "I always reserve the right to change my mind after studying the bills line by line. I anticipate no vetoes on budget matters."
He added, "There might be some other bill or bills that I’ll need to veto. On workers comp, that and other bills will be reviewed to make sure that from my point of view there are no errors or mistakes."
Pressed for a response, the governor also commented on abortion-related bills. He said, "The Legislature has a right to pass bills the members believe are good laws in the public interest. The governor can sign or veto, doing what he or she believes is right. I signed four of the anti-abortion laws, and I vetoed four. I think I am right down the middle, where most Oklahomans are."
The future of pro-business tax credits and exemptions was put in doubt this session. Gov. Henry said, "We probably need to get the right group of smart minds together to look at every single tax credit on the books, all the exemptions. The idea of course is to incentivize behavior and encourage economic activity that would not otherwise occur."
Discussing potential budget holes, Henry commented, "We left $100 million in the rainy day fund … plus the $360 million we are leaving in cash flow. I believe the savings and other initiatives, and higher revenues will close much of the gap. It would have been irresponsible to cause damage to the services infrastructure or to have cuts that left behind damage that was irreparable in areas like education, transportation and public safety."
A late proposal, backed by the governor and both Republican legislative leaders, was made to consolidate some state agency functions. The measure failed. Henry commented, "I believe some consolidation of agencies is a very appropriate policy to pursue, but that it proved very difficult to achieve politically and practically."
Speaker of the House Chris Benge, the Tulsan in the trio of top leaders, gave the most positive assessment, assigning a grade of A. Nevertheless, the Tulsa Republican, described the session as very tough.
Meeting with reporters a few minutes after adjournment, Benge said, "We made budget cuts we had to make while still leaving in place a better system to help our economy."
He was upbeat about workers’ compensation system reforms and a cluster of changes to state education policy. On the latter: "There are many other reforms I am proud of. The education reforms are preparing us for education in the balance of the 21st century. Gov. Henry had signed most GOP-backed education reforms by mid-day Saturday."
Benge played a leading role in new energy policies, and called this year’s steps vital, particularly support for alternative energy sources like wind and natural gas saying, "We continued to make a statement that Oklahoma wants to be a leader in alternative energy."
Benge contends, "I still say that compared to what you see in other states we are comparatively healthy and robust."
After laying the groundwork for moratoria on many tax credits, the Legislature at the eleventh hour shifted toward deferments (delayed triggers for the credits) on some credits, rather than outright repeal or temporary suspension. Rep. Benge told CapitolBeatOK, We didn’t want to send the wrong message. We still need to promote business development.
Concerning a House vs. Senate dispute that escalated into an argument between him and Senate President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee, Benge commented, "We had a [House Republican] caucus over the disagreement with the Senate. We took a break and had a serious discussion. He continued, "I’ll just say that it was a disagreement in the midst of a session that could be called ugly and uglier."
Some reporters pressed the Speaker concerning the budget process and its openness, or perceived lack thereof. Benge responded, "In this system we have 149 different legislators. Ideally, we could have a smoother ending to a four month session but I think the process worked."
Reporters queried how near the Legislature came to facing a special session in June. He replied, "We came close a couple of times. Last week [May 17-21], there was a real impasse on the budget. I wasn’t sure we were going to be able to finish." Benge said he grew confident by early afternoon on Friday that members would finish their business by the required time, 5 p.m.
Benge disputed the notion that legislators spent too much time on ideological issues. He reflected, "That contention comes up every session. I point out that this is a diverse body, and a diverse ideas come to the Capitol every year, every session."
When told Governor Brad Henry gave the session a grade of B-, Benge assigned a higher mark: "I would give it an A considering everything we had to deal with, both the budget and the policy measures."
Batting cleanup with a rather substantive press conference Friday evening was the first Republican Senate President Pro Tempore in Oklahoma history.
Glenn Coffee of Oklahoma City, in a discussion punctuated with both humor and introspective commentary, said he was satisfied with most results of the 2010 Legislature, happy with his tenure, and ready to leave government.
He expressed concerns about state reliance on federal resources, and said odds are the next Legislature will face challenges as great as this year’s did. Coffee expressed pride with workers’ compensation reforms; educational transformation measures (including expanded charter schools), performance pay, local school empowerment, and internet-based instruction.
Coffee reflected, "The theme of the Republican caucus this session was ‘jobs, jobs jobs.’ He contends that "with the reforms we enacted, we are pleased that we made that theme a reality." He continued, "We campaigned on bringing long overdue reform and fiscal responsibility to state government, and while were not claiming to have finished the job, we believe we got a strong start in the past two sessions."
Coffee said, Last Wednesday (May 26) "was as big a day in Oklahoma education reform as I’ve ever seen. I know, of course, that this is just a starting point, but it is certainly an important and gratifying one."
Coffee looked back on his time at the Capitol and said, "In the  years I was here I watched the steady transformation of the Legislature from Democrat to Republican control. I am proud that several of those who will be serving in the Republican majority after I am gone are people I recruited."
Concerning highs and lows in the challenging budget environment, Coffee commented, "Without a doubt a high point was the ability to come together and find common ground on so many issues. Low points are that there were a number of lost opportunities."
Coffee was candid about his disagreement with Benge on Friday: The speaker and I have had an ongoing argument about the House ‘germaneness’ rule and application of that to Senate bills, in this case Senate Bill 41. We had a heated exchange when the bill we sought to advance was ruled ‘not germane.’ I let my temper flare, and he let his temper flare, too. I believe the argument was the result of last day pressures. In no way does that disagreement take away from my respect and friendship for Chris Benge.
Coffee remains concerned over the issue that sparked dispute, attempts to rein in what he calls intrusive questions of taxpayers by county assessors.
Senator Coffee also reiterated his view that a $700-800 million hole might exist for 2012. Coffee added, "There is a concern about leaving a hole for future years. The steps we took helped us avoid a budget hole for this year. If the economy doesn’t rebound, this could still have implications for 2013, 2014 and 2015."
Concerning the end of his tenure, Coffee said, "I am ready to go. I read something the other day about the number of ‘mornings’ or ‘sunrises’ a person has in their life. That is, chances to wake up, see the sun, and decide what to do with work, family and other concerns that day. I figure I have about 10,000 mornings left. I’m really ready to go on to something new."
Unlike Governor Henry, Coffee said he was not wistful about departing. Coffee reflected, "This has been fun, and it’s nice to look back and reminisce about what has been achieved. But it’s time for somebody else to do this job. I am happy to move on to a new phase of life."
Responding to Henrys "B-" and Benges "A" Coffee cheerfully assigned a "B." As for the governor, Coffee said, "He has been excellent to work with. We often disagree but he managed to disagree without being disagreeable."
Coffee deflected arguments that the session devoted too much energy to non-budget issues.
"Some of the things we dealt with might seem like extracurricular issues to outsiders, he said. But those issues are important to voters, and voters elect us. We represent them." He rejected one reporter’s premise the final five days looked like total chaos.
Looking to the upcoming election season, Coffee said, "I think this will be a strong year for Republicans. It’s the kind of year that I think any thing can happen in nearly any district. In response to a question from CapitolBeatOK, Coffee said, "I expect Republicans to make important gains in statewide races this year."
Concerning a potential return to government, perhaps in an appointed post, he said, "I’ll look at possibilities as they come along."
Edit Note: This in-depth report is adapted by our Capitol Editor Patrick B. McGuigan from his recent stories for the online news site (www.capitolbeatok.com) he runs from his office in the press room of the state capitol.