No one ever went bankrupt betting on popular disdain for the Oklahoma Legislature, and state auditor Gary Jones is ready to up the ante.
Jones wants a constitutional amendment to give Oklahoma a unicameral legislature. Instead of a House and a Senate, we’d just have a House or a Senate, and roughly 70 state lawmakers would become ordinary citizens again. No legislative salary. No per diem. No lobbyists looking to buy them dinner.
By Jones’ estimates, the state would save at least $15 million a year, probably more, and end up with a more efficient government.
“If you look at it from a business standpoint, what we’re doing now makes absolutely no sense,” Jones said. “It’s a total and complete disaster that’s making things worse.”
To hear Jones tell it, the Legislature has too many people doing too little work. Its processes are secretive, duplicative and contradictory. It is designed to make more noise than impact and to spend a lot of money needlessly in the process.
A plan to eliminate legislators’ jobs is obviously a nonstarter inside the Capitol, but Jones isn’t worried. He’s planning a statewide initiative petition next year to force a constitutional amendment on the 2016 general election ballot. The petition would need about 125,000 signatures, a tall order, but one Jones says he can meet.
Jones is touring the state touting his unicameral idea to civic clubs, newspapers and anyone who will listen. He says he is getting an “unbelievable response” wherever he goes.
“They’re saying, ‘Man, we’ve got to do this.’”
The Jones plan is still largely in the talking-about-it phase. He’s rallying support and listening to ideas and objections other people bring to the discussion before working out the details. He hasn’t decided on a lot of things, including how many members there would be in the state’s new one-chamber Legislature.
Ironically, one of the most troubling issues facing the idea comes from the Legislature’s own political dysfunction. Having two chambers allows either the House or the Senate to approve a popular but bad idea, the wedge bills that have obvious flaws but would be political poison to vote against. In a two-chamber legislature, those bills are no problem. They pass one chamber, go across the Capitol with a wink and a nod, and disappear.
Example: In 2014, angered by court rulings that would allow same-sex marriages, Rep. Todd Russ proposed eliminating state-issued marriage licenses. The bill passed the House by a better than two-to-one margin. On the other hand, taking the state out of the marriage license business would mean that no one from the government would be previewing applications to make sure everyone was of legal age. The Russ bill died of neglect in the Senate.
I realize that I just defended the state’s bicameral Legislature by arguing that the members are so untrustworthy that we need a lot of them to water down their mischief. I prefer to think of it in gentler terms: The more eyes that look at any idea, the more likely its flaws will be found and fixed. Having two chambers makes it harder to do anything in the Legislature, and that’s good. It shouldn’t be easy to make law.
On the other hand, having only one legislative chamber would eliminate the often outrageous trickery that happens in conference committees, those largely secret places where legislators send bills that were passed in different forms by the House and Senate. It’s supposed to be where minor details are worked out and compromise is achieved, but too often it’s the staging ground for massive rewrites, sometimes total revisions that leave nothing of the original proposal except the bill number.
That’s how so-called “woollyboogers” emerge during the final days of the legislative session with little opportunity for debate, deliberation or amendment. It’s a favorite trick of political bosses and lobbyist, and it wouldn’t be possible in a one-house legislature.
But bosses and lobbyist are an insidious and creative lot. They’d find some other way to pull their shenanigans.
Is the Jones plan political payback? He says it isn’t, that he’s been thinking about legislative reform since he was first elected.
“We can make Oklahoma the model for efficiency in government for the nation,” he said.
But if he was seeking some political revenge, he’d certainly have just cause. With little warning, legislators cut state appropriations to the auditor’s office by 7.25 percent this year and took another $500,000 out of his cash account. Since 2009, the auditor’s office has taken a 42.7 percent appropriations cut, a measure of how unpopular Jones is to the kingmakers inside the state Capitol.
In response, Jones makes no secret of his disdain for political insiders, who he says have neither the education nor the experience to be in charge of state finances.
He says that when he was told about the deep appropriations cuts he was facing, he said a little prayer and quoted the Bible to someone: “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.”
When that comment got passed around the Capitol, word came back to Jones that powerful forces were offended and the auditor’s budget might take another hit next year as a consequence.
“I said, ‘So be it,’” Jones said.
That’s the kind of bluntness you’d expect from Jones. He’s a brutally honest version of what my grandmother used to call aginners, people who look at what everyone does and are against it. They’re the sort of troublemakers that every big organization needs — in small numbers.
The Joneses of the world are willing to challenge the institutional inertia, those things that tend not to move because they never have moved and those things that have never varied in their direction because that’s the way they’ve always gone in the past.
Such gadflies can be the source of great changes, and the targets of great contempt, especially from those who have an investment in inertia.
A former state GOP chairman and county commissioner, Jones says he could be a political gladhander, if he wanted.
“I can play the game better than anyone up here. I choose not to play the game,” he said. “I didn’t come in here to be popular. I came to do the right thing.”
Wayne Greene 918-581-8308