Powerful lobbyist confronts Democratic senator over her support for Republican bill

altOn the floor of the state Senate, Tulsa lobbyist Margaret Erling confronted Democratic Sen. Judy Eason-McIntyre last Thursday (May 12), demanding that the veteran legislator withdraw backing for a Senate conference committee report on House Bill 1465.

The measure would shift the “cutoff date” for children entering pre-K and Kindergarten programs.

In other news touching H.B. 1465, CapitolBeatOK has learned a high-ranking official at the Oklahoma Department of Education is telling legislators the Republican-sponsored measure is opposed by the first Republican superintendent of public instruction in state history.

The verbal clash occurred on the floor of the state Senate when lobbyist Erling approached Eason-McIntyre and demanded that she take her name off the Senate conference document. Eason-McIntyre at first misunderstood the issue Erling, a longtime friend, was raising, and why the lobbyist was so passionate about it.

CapitolBeatOK learned of the incident from both eyewitnesses and individuals who described it, saying such behavior by lobbyists at the Capitol is rare.

Eason-McIntyre later withdrew support for the conference report, but said she has come to believe the confrontation Erling provoked, which was witnessed by Senate colleagues, was disrespectful and improper. 

In an interview today with CapitolBeatOK, Eason-McIntyre recounted the incident at some length, saying it surprised and even shocked her. She candidly explained her current view, saying she is not joining the conference report because, “I don’t need the hassle right now.” However, she said she thought Erling “crossed the line” in the way she presented her opposition.

In the Monday interview, Eason-McIntyre said that at the time of the incident, she had decided to support two Republican bills in the conference, and had approached “my leader,” state Sen. Andrew Rice of Oklahoma City to give him a heads up on her decisions. The upper chamber had just recessed for the day. Sen.Rice was working at his desk, according to Eason-McIntyre.

She briefly explained to Rice her support for the two measures in the conference process (signing a conference report does not bind a member to support a measure on final passage), including H.B. 1465. She said Sen. Rice told her “not to worry about it.”

He had, she recounted, asked members of the minority caucus to remain unified through the redistricting process to assure protection of Democratic interests. She explained that with that issue now headed toward resolution, Rice told her he understood her positions on the two measures.

Just as the two had finished speaking, Erling approached. As Erling confronted her, Eason-McIntyre was so perplexed by Erling’s attitude that she was, she confessed, briefly confused over which of the two bills had so angered her.

“She was irate, and ranting. I thought she was going to have a stroke,” Eason-McIntyre told CapitolBeatOK. Erling, who has several major clients at the Capitol, including Tulsa Public Schools, claimed to Eason-McIntyre that another client, George Kaiser of Tulsa, opposes H.B. 1465.

Eason-McIntyre said she saw Erling later that evening and that the lobbyist had calmed down. In the senator’s words, Erling “sort of apologized.” Eason-Mctyre said she told Erling that “not very many people get away with that kind of behavior” toward her.

Eason-McIntyre said today that it bothered her to have had such disagreeable words in front of her friends, including Sen. Rice, Senator John Sparks of Norman and at least two other Democratic colleagues.

Although H.B. 1465 has in its current form cleared the House Conference process, it has been pending in the Senate Conference Committee. Sen. Clark Jolley of Edmond, he conference panel’s key player, is the sponsor. The conference measure has Jolley’s support, and that of Sen. Gary Stanislawski of Tulsa.

Late Monday, Republican Senators John Ford of Bartlesville and Jonathan Nichols of Norman had not signed the conference document. Democratic Sen. Susan Paddack of Ada also has not signed. The sixth member of the panel is Sen. Eason-McIntyre. The measure will need four signatories in order to reach the floor.

Monday evening, multiple sources told CapitolBeatOK the legislation might go through another round of minor revisions, apparently unrelated to the substance of the proposal.

In other news, CapitolBeatOK has learned that Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi’s chief of staff has, late in the conference committee process, lobbied key legislators, asking them not to advance the bill.

Sources who asked not to be named told CapitolBeatOK they were told the Education Department opposes the bill. Superintendent Barresi’s spokesman did not respond to CapitolBeatOK’s requests for comments on the bill, first made via email on May 11. The request for comment from the superintendent was repeated on Thursday, May 12 and again this evening (May 16).

The agency’s opposition emerged although the measure had cleared both chambers with overwhelming support. In the first round, the proposal prevailed 78-16 in the state House, and 45-0 in the state Senate.

State Rep. Dennis Johnson of Duncan, House sponsor for the measure, has passionately engaged on the issue, especially in recent days.

Johnson has explained the bill is intended to help “summer babies” – children born between July and September. They usually are the youngest in their class and often, in the experience of classroom teachers, are those who fall behind during early education years.

In a defense of the measure late last week, Johnson said, “With these younger children, a couple months of development can make an enormous difference in their readiness for the rigors of school. It is harmful to a child’s academic development if they begin their learning process behind the older children in their class, and the teachers I have heard from are seeing this every year in their classes.”

Rep. Johnson stressed the legislation came after two years of careful study and development, led initially by Professional Oklahoma Educators, a non-union professional association.

In layman’s terms, the proposal would move the kindergarten and pre-kindergarten “cutoff date” from September 1 to July 1. As a practical matter, that would mean a child would have to be four by July 1 to enter Pre-K programs, and/or five years old by July 1 to enter kindergarten.

Sponsors developed the proposal to allow a screening process for students who do not meet the chronological cutoff date, but who might be ready for school in developmental terms.