Republican legislative leaders: steady as she goes

 Interviews with the Republicans leaders of the Senate and House reflect a determination to continue, and perhaps to intensify, the more conservative policy direction the state of Oklahoma embarked upon after the 2010 election.

In his session with Capitol reporters after members of the upper chamber completed its second legislative week, Senate President Brian Bingman of Sapulpa, expressed strong support for two of the initial proposals moving through the legislative pipeline.

He expressed personal solidarity with Speaker of the House Kris Steele, a fellow Republican, and House Minority Leader Scott Inman, a Democrat, who gained approval from the House Rules Committee for House Joint Resolution 1093, rejecting proposed pay hikes for state judges and statewide elected officials.

Bingman is a Senate co-sponsor the measure. He told reporters, “The timing couldn’t be worse. After the budget challenges of recent years, with no pay increases for state employees and teachers, I’m on board with this bill.”

Reporters asked Bingman for further thoughts on the Personhood Bill, Senate Bill 1433 which cleared the Senate 34-8 this week.

He succinctly defended the measure, and advocated for further steps to clarify Oklahoma’s inclinations on the issue. He commented, “It’s a pro-life bill.  Any time we can do something like that we will. There’s momentum for that here. We thought it was an important bill. “

Concerning assertions that the measure was a political move, he told reporters, “Well, that’s your department, to separate the noise from the substance. Political hoopla is not what that was about. It was about being pro-life and acting on that belief.”

 In response to a question from CapitolBeatOK, he observed the measure was similar to a statute on the books in Missouri for the past two decades.

Looking ahead to the Tuesday (February 21) meeting of the Board of Equalization, when a final dollar figure available for general revenue appropriation will be certified, he said he was hopeful for a strong certification, but agreed that low natural gas prices could limit the state’s tax resources. He also pointed out that robust oil drilling means that energy industry incentives (on moratorium the past two years, but coming due for new credits this year) could impact budget planning.

Senator Bingman defended the energy incentives, saying at one point, “The way I look at it, the energy companies have done their part by drilling and exploring. We’re very mindful of that.” Without incentives, “They would not be drilling at the same level …, and besides the requirement for that is that the money has to go back into the ground [in further exploration].”

Bingman said he is hopeful about the economy but “personally concerned” about low natural gas prices. “The price is at a 10-year low. There is an oversupply. It effects everything. Remember that sales taxes and so forth are paid on purchases of equipment. Yes, I’m now a little concerned about the certification.”

Senator Bingman stressed he still wants to find ways to reduce tax levies, and that he is supportive of proposals to trim income tax rates. He reflected, “When times are tough, that’s when you want to put money in the pockets of Oklahomans and taxpayers. Last year we actually reduced taxes for taxpayers and it was a good thing.”

He remained cautious on bond proposals, but like other state leaders indicated improvements to the Capitol Building itself are possible. Commenting on possible bonds, he said, “We have a responsibility to take care of the assets we own. We have a good credit rating and we want to keep that. We do have some things to take care of and we’ll look at that.”

As for the Native American Cultural Center on the Oklahoma River in the capital city, Bingman was particularly restrained, saying, “On that we have to perform some due diligence. We’ve done $80 million already. Some of our senators want to know what the completion costs really are. We want to see the business plan for completion. It seems like good news that the private sector is getting engaged. I certainly support getting a better accounting of what’s already been spent.”

Noting the election of state Rep. Al McAffrey to fill the vacant District 46 seat, he said he anticipated a mid-week swearing-in ceremony for the Oklahoma City Democrat. He expects to discuss the new senator’s committee assignments with Minority Leader Sean Burrage of Claremore early next week.

House Speaker Kris Steele told reporters he was, after the first two weeks, “optimistic about our focus and the priorities. Our members are making decisions to benefit our state.”

Steele praised the work of state Rep. Randy McDaniel on pension reform legislation, including a measure to improve the fiscal posture of the firefighter pension fund. He praised legislation raising the pay-in of firefighters and municipalities, and boosting the apportionment from the longstanding insurance premium tax devoted to funding the pension. 

Steele said he was gratified the state was making pension plan progress without the legislative tension some states have seen. He commented, “I’m proud of all the participants in that. It’s been difficult but they have conducted themselves well. In some states that causes a meltdown, but not here.”

Steele is advancing water policy measures, telling reporters, “We are determined to do what we can on issues outside of the scope of the lawsuit.”

Steele reiterated his support for up to $5 million in additional funding to support Attorney General Scott Pruitt if litigation over southeast Oklahoma water continues. He said, “That whole issue is under consideration right now. We are in communication with the governor. The question is whether the attorney general will need a supplemental, or if there is an appropriation that could be part of the normal budgeting process.” 

He said technical concerns about some language had led to a pull back of Senate Joint Resolution 25, a constitutional proposal to end the governor’s involvement in the parole process.

Concerning the income tax rate cuts, including an eventual phase out of the state income tax, he told reporters he agreed with the “spirit and intent” of a proposal backed by a majority of the House Republican caucus to phase out the income levy over a ten-year period, and a less dramatic phase out advanced by Governor Fallin.

He said, “I agree with both of them on the goal to reduce the state income tax, and the rate. I think we need to be methodical in our approach. As we pursue these initiatives, answers will become clearer.”