Five Things I’ve Learned From Covering The Last Week of Session
I entered the world of journalism as a political science major.
The last three years of my life have been spent studying campaigns, international relations, law, and comparative politics. It was great preparation for the news stories I would report on for the Pioneer newspaper.
This last semester, I covered topics from state budget cuts to the opioid epidemic. One thing that surprised me was that when one is tasked with covering a topic, and cover it ethically, one must become a novice-expert on that subject.
While writing on the state budget and its effects on higher education, I found myself spending late nights combing through hundreds of pages of budget reports. To try to understand the role of the oil industry in Oklahoma politics, I spent hours reading the most mind-numbing documents you can imagine on subjects like longitudinal drilling and the gross production tax.
I visited the Capitol to interview legislators. I spoke to a former governor. I talked to doctors, counselors, professors, and countless other experts about their professions. I clocked countless hours researching the right questions to ask so I could make the most out of the few minutes I would have with them.
I did these things because I wanted to produce the most accurate account of what was happening in Oklahoma politics without bias.
Even with all these preparations, no research or footwork could prepare me for covering the state budget in the final week of the legislative session.
Before May 22, I thought I had an understanding of politics and what it takes to write about politics.
I was wrong.
I have compiled this list of the five things I learned covering state politics during the last week of the legislative session. This list is in no way exhaustive, but it serves to inform readers about the nasty underbelly of Oklahoma politics.
Even if you think you know, you have no idea.
1- There is no such thing as too much coffee.
Many legislative sessions begin as early as 8:45 am and some can run well after midnight. You must be hooked up to a slow drip of strong, dark Colombian brew to survive the hours required to keep up with legislative trickery and maneuver around legions of angry protesters.
2- It’s not just lawmakers helping shape the law.
On Monday, as I pulled into the Capitol parking lot, I couldn’t help but notice the behemoth red and blue Halliburton equipment taking up parking spaces.
Oil executives say the equipment was placed there to remind legislators about the thousands of citizens employed by the oil industry in Oklahoma.
After what I experienced that week, I’m convinced they were placed there to transform into Decepticons to smash things in the case that lawmakers passed a gross production tax of 4 percent or more.
Many of the employees represented by the Decepticons were also in attendance to protest. They were hauled to the Capitol in temperature-controlled busses from their workplaces by oil and gas lobby groups.
The oil and gas industry is doing a lot more than just busing protesters to the capitol and planting Transformers to secure their cash cow.
A simple check of campaign finance records shows that oil and gas companies have spent hundreds of thousands in contributions to lawmakers.
Likewise, House Majority leader Scott Inman, D-Del City, accused Republican lawmakers, including Governor Mary Fallin, of phoning Devon Energy executives during a recent budget meeting.
The oil and gas officials controlling our legislature are really working hard to make sure we can’t educate our children or feed the poor. Totally not cool.
3- Scheduled legislative meeting times mean absolutely nothing.
On Tuesday May 23rd, I rushed through crosstown traffic. I darted around cars that were driving entirely too slow for a weekday lunch hour. I was trying to make it for a 1:30 p.m. legislative meeting.
Breathless, I rushed up the Capitol steps and haplessly passed through security. I made it to the press box with seconds to spare. I set up my laptop and prepared to work.
Like clockwork, the meeting began and was immediately called to recess.
I was confused. What had just happened?
I asked the other reporters how long it would take for them to resume the meeting. One reporter sarcastically quipped back, “I don’t know, maybe fifteen minutes, maybe two hours, maybe tomorrow. Who knows?”
4- Thieves and drug dealers are not the only ones who do business after dark.
Tuesday night at nearly midnight, the Joint Committee on Appropriations and Budgets (JCAB) finally met after pushing their 9:30 p.m. meeting back twice.
In the dead of night, a budget was finally presented. Lawmakers had only minutes to review the lengthy document that might determine whether or not our state’s most basic needs will be met.
They had just minutes to review the bill. The budget was presented without a summary breakdown attached.
Since then, many Democratic and Republican members alike are calling these GOP tactics unconstitutional double-dealing.
As a private citizen and a journalist, I too call BS.
I can only think of a handful of reasons the House GOP is shunning transparency, and none of them are honorable.
5- The Oklahoma constitution is flexible as long as you use the right words.
So here’s the deal. According to that sacred state document, lawmakers are not allowed to make bills that establish a new tax or generate revenue in the last week of the legislative session.
Despite this very clear rule, GOP members presented bills which did exactly that.
However, if you just gotta push it through and circumvent the constitution, you can do what rhetoric wizard Rep. Jon Echols R-Oklahoma City did. When defending the addition of a new tax on motor vehicle sales, just try calling it something else like an exemption or levy.
Whatever you do, don’t call it a revenue or tax bill.
Despite the massive storm that is the current political atmosphere, I will continue to cover these stories. The citizens of this state deserve transparency. They are smart enough to see past the smoke and mirrors.
Even this article. Don’t take my word for it. Go look for yourself.
Talk to your representative, voice your concerns, and don’t take no for an answer.