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Henry says he's given Oklahomans reasons to take pride

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ In his first extensive re-election interview, Democratic Gov. Brad Henry said he has Oklahoma on the move and given residents reasons to take more pride in their state.

``I've done what I said I would do. I've worked well with everyone, regardless of party, and we've accomplished a lot in four years,'' Henry told The Associated Press a few days before signing a record $627 million tax-cut plan.

He said he had brought ``a new brand of bipartisanship'' to the governor's office, although it has ``upset, from time to time, members of my own party.''

Henry likely will be favored in the general election against the winner of a Republican field that includes U.S. Rep. Ernest Istook, Tulsa businessman Bob Sullivan and state Sen. James Williamson.

The incumbent said he wants four more years to finish the job of creating a first-class education system, expanding health care coverage and ensuring the state's future through knowledge-based economic development programs.

His top goals include raising teacher pay to the regional average and expanding what he called a trendsetting program to help more small businesses pay for the health insurance of their employees.

With first lady Kim Henry sitting by his side in the governor's office, Henry said he has accentuated the positive as governor and ``Oklahomans today are more prideful of our great state'' than ever before.

Oklahoma, Henry said, has been recognized for having ``the best early childhood education program in the nation'' and for starting a program that has dried up homemade methamphetamine labs across the country.

He said schools have gotten record funding, while being required to be accountable to taxpayers, and hundreds of millions of dollars have been raised to upgrade college campuses.

The 43-year-old chief executive said the state has a bright future because of investments in education, highways and ``a research infrastructure that will help us diversify our economy and position us in a much better place when there is another economic downturn.''

Calling himself ``kind of a conservative centrist,'' Henry said he had not made a ``turn to the right'' as some in his party claim, even though this year he signed a passel of Republican-sponsored programs that had been bottled up by some of his former Democratic Senate colleagues.

He inked a package of anti-abortion measures that previously had died in term-limited Sen. Bernest Cain's Human Resources Committee. One measure requires consent from one parent before a teenager can get an abortion.

A former state senator from Shawnee, Henry also signed a bill to permit the execution of repeat child molesters and a measure that makes it easier for someone to shoot or use other deadly force away from the home and claim self-defense.

The usually unflappable Henry appeared a little agitated as he explained why he signed those measures.

``I don't know if I really have to explain it _ my actions speak for myself,'' he said. ``I think that every abortion is a tragedy. I wish we didn't have them.''

``The courts say it is legal, but I do believe there are reasonable restrictions the courts have allowed, like parental notification,'' said the governor, who took a pro-choice stand as a candidate in 2002, when he upset Republican Steve Largent, a conservative congressman.

Henry said a repeat child molester should receive ``no sympathy'' in his view, but it would be up to the courts to decide the constitutionality of the law.

Speaking as a father, he said: ``The stand-your-ground law is not as extreme as the media has portrayed it, in my view. I believe in the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms and I believe that Oklahoma families should have the right to protect themselves.''

Henry, who has three daughters, said he had no desire to run for the U.S. Senate if he is re-elected as governor. ``I love the state of Oklahoma. I'll never say never, but I just have no desire to go to Washington. I'm frustrated with the way politics works in Washington, D.C. I just don't think they get anything done.''

He said politicians should forget they are Democrats or Republicans after the elections.

Cain, who is term limited and considered one of the more liberal members of the Senate, said many Democrats are not happy with Henry's actions, but gave him high marks for focusing key Democratic programs.

``I disagreed with his tax-cut proposals, but overall his support for education, health care and human services has been tremendous,'' Cain said. Given the political environment, he said, Henry ``has done an excellent job working through the minefields'' to improve the state.

Henry said his bipartisan approach allowed him to pass his first big test when he took office and overcame a budget deficit of nearly $700 million by getting all sides in the Legislature to agree to his blueprint for balancing the budget.

He said his policies, including protecting the Rainy Day Fund, set Oklahoma on a course for the good financial times it is now enjoying, permitting this year's huge tax cut, along with record expenditures on schools, roads and other programs.

A plan he advocated early to eliminate the capital gains tax on Oklahoma-based property has paid dividends, he said, and was partly responsible for bringing Vanguard Car Rental Co. and 700 good paying jobs to Oklahoma.

``I believe Oklahoma is truly on the move. We're on the right track,'' he said. ``The question is: Do we want to continue that progress or do we want to take a step back. I think that is what this election boils down to.''

So far, Henry's Republican opponents have complained mostly about his gambling initiatives and a tobacco tax increase. The GOP hopefuls say the gaming proposals have produced social problems and the tobacco tax is unfair to non-Indian retailers and has fallen short of revenue projections.

They also say higher energy prices are more responsible for filling state coffers than anything Henry has done.

In 2004, voters approved the tobacco tax, a statewide lottery and a plan to expand casino gaming to horse race tracks and regulate Indian casinos for the first time.

Henry said the cigarette tax has saved the state's trauma care system, provided funding for a cancer center and a telemedicine center and helped small employers get insurance for their workers.

He said giving the people a chance to vote for a lottery was a promise he made in his 2002 bid for governor and it and the casino gaming plan are providing the first new revenue streams for education in decades.

Despite the criticism, he said the lottery will bring in an $125 million in its first year for education. He said he had predicted it could bring in up to $300 million four years ago, but that was based upon having video poker and other video games the Legislature did not adopt.

``I think it has been a success,'' he said. ``There are always going to be critics but remember, the people of Oklahoma voted for these measures. And if you criticize me, you're criticizing the vast majority of voters in the state of Oklahoma.''

He said his GOP foes are misleading voters when they say education benefits derived from the lottery and gaming plan were outweighed by social problems the proposals created.

Before voters adopted those plans, he said, the state had more than 80 Indian casinos, bingo, horse racing and anyone could get on the computer to play Las Vegas games, but there was no money to treat compulsive gamblers.

``Now, through the lottery legislation as well as the Gaming Regulation Act, we pump hundreds of thousands of dollars into gambling prevention as well as for treatment,'' Henry said.
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