Republicans built further on their dominance of the state Legislature on Tuesday by securing a net gain of four House seats and three Senate seats.
The change was relatively slight, but contrasted with intensive efforts this year by Democrats, educators and others pushing for more bipartisan influence over the budget and policies. Next session, the GOP will control 78.5 percent of the Legislature’s 149 seats, instead of just under 74 percent.
Yet this new crop of legislators will represent a change: A total of 45 lawmakers, or 30 percent, will begin new terms when they are sworn in later this month. The freshman class will be one of the largest in recent history.
That is due to some incumbents being upset in the primary races and many more being barred from running by term limits.
Political observers, advocates and party officials say this will present challenges, but it also could open the doors to fresh ideas for addressing problems that have plagued the state for years.
“One of the biggest arguments of term limits is you’ve just ridden out all the people with the knowledge of the system and how things work,” said Jeanette Mendez, a political science professor at Oklahoma State University. “On the flip side, it should give a nice chance for people to form new coalitions and be open-minded. But, given that, our partisan division will remain pretty deep.”
New frames for old problems
The 56th Legislature will convene next year with lawmakers facing similar problems they grappled with in the previous session.
Topping the list is another possible budget shortfall for next fiscal year. State leaders say it likely will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. With the defeat of State Question 779, a proposed sales tax for education, lawmakers also may feel pressured to find extra money for teacher raises and public schools. Other agencies will also be competing for funds, however.
How lawmakers respond to critical issues could depend on whether the nine Democrats and 36 Republicans in the freshman class start pushing for new approaches.
But Mendez said it will be a challenge for them to quickly grasp the complexity of the state budget and understand the hundreds of other bills being filed for the session.
The challenge is so difficult that in the past, OSU’s political science department has been asked to teach classes for new legislators on subjects as basic as how a bill becomes a law.
“It’s just a lot of people are very new to this,” Mendez said. “There is a very steep learning curve.”
David Blatt, executive director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, said if new lawmakers don’t step up immediately, it could be up to legislative leaders to set the tone for the session. But he said he hopes both parties consider new ideas as well as older ones that failed to gain traction in past sessions.
“The conversation we are going to be having over the next session is what are the best revenue options for the state,” he said. “I think people will be talking about the tobacco tax again, they’ll be talking about the motor fuel tax, talking about taxing services – and we hope maybe talking about restoring some of the cuts to the income tax.”
Jonathan Small, president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, similarly said he believes the legislative turnover could inject new life into proposals that faced resistance before.
As examples, he said, wind-energy subsidies and spending on other “non-core government services” will have a better chance of being cut because many of the lawmakers who started the programs will have left.
“They are not going to have that emotional tie to continue those,” Small said, “and I think it’s good to relocate those dollars.”
Pressure from voters?
One question is whether the new Legislature will feel increased public pressure to look for new solutions or risk voters’ revenge.
That risk appeared to loom this year after citizens, teachers and advocacy groups condemned the Legislature’s handling of the $1.3 billion budget shortfall, using one-time funds, and not finding enough money to cover teacher pay raises and prevent cuts at schools.
A record number of candidates filed to run for open spots or challenge incumbents who traditionally would run unopposed.
But just three sitting lawmakers – Rep. Dennis Johnson, R-Duncan; Rep. Ken Walker, R-Tulsa, and Sen. Corey Brooks, R-Washington – lost their re-election bids. And those were in primary races. On Tuesday, every incumbent on the ballot won.
Bill Shapard, who runs SoonerPoll, said this doesn’t necessarily invalidate his firm’s poll in in July that found only 34 percent of likely voters held a favorable view of the Legislature.
Instead, it mirrors a trend at the federal level in which voters will criticize Congress but continue to support their own U.S. senator or representative.
This year, Shapard said, the public frustration didn’t rise to a level where voters wanted widespread change in the Legislature.
“Education, for example, was certainly on the radar screen this year,” he said. “It’s just that voters are not ready to change horses quite yet.”
Another possible factor in Republican gains was the surge in registered voters.
As of November, Republicans represented 45.6 percent of the state’s registered voters, compared with 42.4 percent in 2012. The Democratic share dropped from 45.6 percent in 2012 to 39.7 percent this year.
“It just goes to show you that Republicans in Oklahoma continue to do well,” Shapard said. “It’s a juggernaut that does not seem to be slowing.”
Pam Pollard, chairwoman of the Oklahoma Republican Party, said the success of incumbents on Tuesday shows that voter unhappiness is not as widespread as believed.
“I think it is a sign that voters agree with what we are trying to do,” she said. “They are electing the same people because they believe in the Republican leadership.”
Oklahoma Democratic Party spokeswoman Sarah Baker said voters will tolerate only so much of unchanging approaches to solving problems, such as the budget crisis and school funding. However, she said, voters must become more active if they want to see real change.
“If we go another legislative session just throwing buckets of water over the edge to keep us from drowning, I’m not entirely sure it’ll make a difference in 2018 if people are not engaged,” she said. “We can’t fix these issues if people are not willing to go out and talk to their candidates and talk to their legislators about them.”
Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that produces in-depth and investigative content on public-policy issues facing the state. For more Oklahoma Watch content, go to oklahomawatch.org.