Friday, February 11, 2011

Steele: 'Bold Reforms' Change House Operations

By House Speaker Kris Steele

This week marked the beginning of Oklahoma’s 53rd Legislature and already historic strides have taken place.

In addition to hearing the State of the State delivered by our state’s first female Governor, House lawmakers voted to dramatically reform the chamber’s rules of operation by increasing openness and public oversight. The newly adopted rules represent a major shift in the way business is conducted at the state Capitol.

While tremendous progress toward increased transparency has occurred in recent years, the rule changes recently adopted dramatically increase the opportunity for public scrutiny of legislative actions. The new rules also better equip members to make informed decisions, and provide better safeguards against last-minute changes escaping thorough review.

The reforms produce a more transparent process. Ordinarily, when the House and Senate vote in favor of different versions of the same bill, the legislation is often sent to a joint conference committee where a final version is negotiated.

Previously, those conference committees did not convene in any actual meeting of the members and no votes were cast in public. Under the reforms adopted this week, standing conference committees will be established to handle measures assigned to conference. These committees will now hold public meetings and all votes will be recorded.

In addition, a detailed listing of bills on the agenda for each conference committee meeting will be publicly posted in advance.

The reforms include a steadfast 24-hour rule requiring conference committee reports to be filed and posted online for a full day before they are eligible to be considered on the House floor.

In addition, the House and Senate are in the process of proposing joint rules to eliminate “shell” appropriation bills. In past sessions, shell bills were measures that did not contain actual dollar amounts. After these bills passed through both chambers, in the final weeks of session, a conference committee was formed to reach a budget agreement. The new joint rules will eliminate the time previously wasted on shell bills by removing them from the legislative process. Instead, all appropriation measures will be sent directly to a new joint House/Senate committee on appropriations and budget, thus allowing work on the budget to proceed in a more timely and efficient manner.

Public scrutiny and oversight are vital to a healthy democracy. The rule changes recently enacted are bold reforms that set the right tone for the start of this legislative session.

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