Friday, January 21, 2011

Dank: Legislature Should Follow Constitution

House Speaker Kris Steele has announced his intention to implement meaningful and long-overdue changes in the way our Legislature conducts its business. To succeed, he will need the full cooperation and support of legislators.

By Rep. David Dank
R-Oklahoma City

One much-needed reform is to stop the dangerous and wasteful practice of ramming legislation through in the closing hours of the session.

Until legislative leaders of both houses and both parties agree to abide rigorously with our state constitution, Oklahoma taxpayers will still be billed for hidden provisions in legislation that range from folly to bordering on criminal.

Here are just a few examples from the final hours of the 2010 legislative session: On the final day, a conference committee reported House Bill 2359 at 1:45 p.m. The House voted to approve it 52 minutes later. The bill contained an increased tax on vending machines and restored vendor discounts on motor fuel taxes. In less than an hour, a bill no one had time to read shook up a substantial portion of our state tax code.

At 4:16 p.m., a closed conference reported HB 3024, and we voted on it 24 minutes later with no questions or debate. This bill made costly changes in three tax credits that had already been subject to a legislative moratorium. Millions of dollars were at stake, and we had less time to consider this bill than it takes to watch a TV sitcom.

A bill reported out of committee at 1:59 p.m. came to the floor for a vote at 4:40 p.m. HB 2519 extended a multimillion-dollar coal industry tax credit through 2014, despite a total lack of evidence that the coal industry needed or deserved such special treatment.

HB 3024 and HB 2519 were passed by both houses of the Legislature in the final 30 minutes of the session, with no House debate, questions or discussion allowed.

HB 2573 came out of conference at 4:10 p.m. and was passed at 7:17 p.m. on the next-to-last day of the session. It dealt with county official pay, changing “may” to “shall” on a pay raise provision that is based on rising property taxes and thus mandating costly salary increases to elected officials in the middle of a recession.

Article 5, sections 34 and 35, of the Oklahoma Constitution require that all bills be read at length before final passage and in public before they are signed, unless two-thirds of legislators waive the public requirement.

We are not following the constitution when we engage in practices like those described above.

The result has been a hodgepodge of ill-conceived legislation that sometimes gave multimillion-dollar tax breaks or other costly benefits and privileges to lobbyists representing various special interests.

This has gone on in some form for many years, under leadership from both parties.

Now, Speaker Steele's enlightened leadership promises to change that, for the better. Doing so won't be easy!

Reformist Republican Dank represents District 85 in the Oklahoma House and has been a Capitol insider for more than four decades.

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