Saturday, March 13, 2021

Capitol Watch

As Oklahoma Lawmakers Return to Committee Work, Should the Public Have a Greater Say?

By Trevor Brown | Capitol/Investigative Reporter

When I moved to Oklahoma and began covering the Legislature for Oklahoma Watch nearly five years ago, I was reminded of a quote from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis when he wrote that states are the “laboratories of democracy.”

Not only do laws vary from state to state, but so does how states make those laws.

Prior to coming to Oklahoma, I was the state capitol reporter for several years at Wyoming Tribune Eagle. One of the biggest differences between the two state legislatures (besides how Wyoming alternates between breakneck 20-day and 40-day legislative sessions every other year) was how they approached taking public comments before voting on a bill.

In Wyoming, committee chairs almost always give anyone who attended the meeting a chance to testify on the bill. Lawmakers even hold interim meetings, where public comments are also taken, in locations across the state so residents who don’t live near the capital of Cheyenne have a chance to talk.

Not only was this great as a reporter to find sources and get some quick and easy quotes for my next article, it frequently produced some interesting and compelling discussions.

It’s a bit different here in Oklahoma.

Although committee chairs are given the discretion to allow for public comments, they rarely do. As a result, bills, even high-profile ones, can frequently move through the committee and advance through the legislative process without much debate or drama.

We’ll likely see this play out in the days ahead as lawmakers just wrapped up a marathon week where much of their time was spent on the House or Senate floors trying to pass bills ahead of Thursday’s deadline, which required bills to be passed off the floor in the originating chamber. That means they will soon be returning to more committee work as House committees take up bills passed by the Senate and vice versa.

I was searching for story ideas for the upcoming Sunshine Week, a time where we and other journalists and other open-government proponents highlight transparency issues, when I started thinking about my time in Wyoming. I decided to explore how other states incorporate public comments in their legislative processes and what, if anything, is preventing Oklahoma from making changes to increase public participation.

Look for that article soon coming to Oklahoma Watch. But in the meantime, I want to know what you think about Oklahoma’s legislative process and if there are ways to get the public more involved. Have you found success trying to contact or lobby lawmakers using different methods? As always, feel free to send me your thoughts at tbrown@oklahomawatch.org or interact with me on Twitter at @tbrownokc.

The Top Story
ICU nurse Erica Arrocha shows Gov. Kevin Stitt and Oklahoma State Commissioner of Health Dr. Lance Frye before administering the state’s first COVID-19 vaccine at Integris Baptist Medical Center in Oklahoma City on Dec. 14, 2020. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

Oklahoma, Tulsa County Health Departments Could See Erosion of Independence

Oklahoma Watch’s Paul Monies took a deep dive into one of the more controversial bills still making its way through the legislative process: A proposal that would give the state health commissioner a voice on county health boards and veto authority over any future pick for their executive directors. The bill passed the House on a 54-41 vote on Wednesday. But as Paul writes, there continues to be opposition to the move. [Read more]

Tweet Watch

Oklahoma lawmakers were not short on controversies this week.

In addition to debating hot-button issues including criminal justice reforms, guns and civil rights, Rep. Brad Boles, R-Marlow, drew criticism when he referenced “colored babies” during a debate on a bill that would outlaw abortions once “cardiac activity” is detected in a fetus.

Boles later would call the remark a “slip of the tongue.” But several members of the Oklahoma Legislative Black Caucus said this is further evidence that lawmakers need cultural sensitivity training.

What I’m Reading

  • After the murder of George Floyd and the weeks of nationwide protests that followed, last summer I wrote about how almost all police oversight bills failed to even get a hearing in the Legislature over the past several years. Members of the Oklahoma Legislative Black Caucus were hopeful at the time that the events of that summer would change things. But it looks like pro-police and anti-protestor bills are still the focus of the GOP-led Legislature this year. [The Oklahoman]
  • There are only 33 women in the 149-seat Oklahoma Legislature. A new political action committee is trying to change that as they hope to recruit and support Republican women in future races. [The Frontier]
  • Lawmakers continue to move closer to overhauling the state’s merit protection system to give state officials more flexibility on how they can fire and hire state employees. [The Oklahoman]
  • The Senate passed a bill that would allow state agencies that need an audit of financial statements to go outside the State Auditor and Inspector’s Office and contract with a private entity. The bill has raised eyebrows after Epic Charter School’s co-founder and his wife donated the maximum campaign limit to the state senator who ended up writing the legislation. [Tulsa World]
  • Will the speaker challenge the governor in 2022? Despite rumors, it doesn’t sound like House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, will be mounting a primary challenge, at this point anyway. [NonDoc]

Support our newsroom

During times of crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, Oklahoma needs high-quality investigative journalism. That is our mission at Oklahoma Watch. We produce stories that hold government and public officials accountable and that make transparent what some prefer to keep secret. We depend on financial support from readers like you to sustain our coverage. Help us make a difference.


Support our publication

Every day we strive to produce journalism that matters — stories that strengthen accountability and transparency, provide value and resonate with readers like you.

This work is essential to a better-informed community and a healthy democracy. But it isn’t possible without your support.