House Republicans promise conservative agenda, tax rate action

 Speaker of the House Kris Steele and most committee chairmen, as well as new Majority Floor Leader Dale DeWitt of Braman, met with reporters Tuesday, January 17 to outline a conservative agenda for the 2012 legislative session.

DeWitt promised to pursue an “open door policy” with all Republicans and
the minority Democrats. “I will be fair, honest, and respectful toward
everyone,” DeWitt pledged. 

He pointed to his manner during last year’s redistricting process as a roadmap for the approach he will take with broader issues this year. DeWitt is replacing former floor leader Dan Sullivan, who left the Legislature to take charge of the Grand River Dam Authority.

Earl Sears of Bartlesville, chairman of the Budget and Appropriations Committee, said the state economy is going in the right direction and Republicans plan to advance pro-business and other policies to further economic growth. He said the hundreds of millions of dollars in federal stimulus funds are gone, meaning that even with economic growth no one should expect much spending growth, if at all.

While Republicans were a bit reluctant to provide many details in particular areas of the majority’s agenda for the year, Sears made it clear that a hefty bond issue would not be in the cards, with one possible exception. He said there was active consideration of bonds to finance improvements of the state Capitol itself, but that all other proposals would be unlikely to advance.

Concerning stimulus money, Sears reflected, “You can debate that all year. The point is, we had it, we used it, and it’s all gone.” Hence, he said: spending restraint.

Answering several questions about proposals to reduce income tax rates, Steele said, “My expectation is you’ll see policy developed this year to reduce rates, and that steps will indeed be taken in this session.” Steele said multi-year plans to phase in tax reduction remained on the table and under active consideration.

Steele and his colleagues said the broad emphasis of last year on constitutional rights, traditional values, government reform/modernization, economic growth, public safety, health and education would remain the linchpin of the policy agenda this year.

Steele affirmed his party remained skeptical of the controversial federal health care law, tagging it an example of something opposed on constitutional grounds. He said the majority’s deliberations on a health exchange would be reflected in one of the measures forthcoming.

Concerning policy development for the Department of Human Services (DHS), Jason Nelson of Oklahoma City said legislators would be pressing for transparency – “to open up more records, and more often, for public scrutiny” – and for better governance of the agency.

In response to a question from CapitolBeatOK, Rep. Nelson refused comment on a recent editorial from The Oklahoman calling on Howard Hendrick to step down as director of the agency.

In discussion with reporters after the formal press conference, Steele said he had been in regular contact with T.W. Shannon of Lawton, speaker designate who presently serves as Transportation Committee chairman. An out-of-town obligation kept Shannon away from today’s outline of the GOP agenda. Steele said Shannon had encouraged House leaders to unveil the broad legislative objectives despite his absence.

Also missing from the lineup of top chairmen was state Rep. David Dank of Oklahoma City, who guided the interim discussion focused on likely changes in tax credits and business incentive programs. Chairman Sears said he was pleased with the work product of Dank’s task force on the tax credits and incentives. Like Steele, Sears was reluctant to embrace any one plan for tax rate reduction, but emphasized, “I want to see rates go down.” Concerning changes in tax credits, he said, “it has to happen,” but would not lay out details.

Steele and his communications aide, John Estus, told reporters details of some of the top legislative packages would be unveiled on Tuesdays and Thursdays as the 2012 session nears.

First up in that sequence, this Thursday, January 19 will be state Rep. Randy McDaniel of Oklahoma City, focusing on further pension reforms, and state Rep. Jason Murphey of Guthrie, detailing the next round of steps the majority hopes to take to advance government efficiency.

Concerning the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, Steele said details of the reforms he will advance remain to be hammered out. He expressed renewed optimism that the proposal to forge “smart on crime” policies will advance. Concerning the future, after his tenure as speaker ends, he said state Reps. Pat Ownbey of Ardmore and Lisa Billy of Purcell would continue to advocate such.

n response to a question concerning a controversial proposal (a proposed constitutional amendment) to define human person-hood as existing “from the moment of conception,” Steele said he had not studied the proposal from state Rep. Mike Reynolds of Oklahoma City.

As for the controversial nature of some proposals expected this year, Steele defended colleagues, noting Republicans now had such a large majority that disagreements among the majority are inevitable. “Democracy is messy, but it’s still the best system,” Steele said.