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Republicans Say Fiscal, Social Successes Point To New Capitol Dynamic

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Oklahoma Republicans say the success of their fiscal and social agendas in the 2007 Legislature is the best evidence yet that there is a new political dynamic at the state Capitol.

Issues popular with conservatives like tax cuts, civil justice reform and faith-based initiatives that received little attention when the House and Senate were controlled by Democrats are top priorities now that the House is solidly in GOP control and there is parity between Republicans and Democrats in the Senate.

During this year's regular legislative session, which adjourned on Friday, the Legislature accelerated the effective dates of the largest income tax cut in state history, approved last year, passed a tax credit for stay-at-home parents and eliminated the franchise tax on most small businesses.

Much of the GOP's social agenda was also approved, including legislation to bar illegal immigrants from getting jobs and state benefits, anti-abortion legislation that prohibits the use of taxpayer funds or facilities for abortions and a measure that encourages partnerships between faith-based groups and state prisons to prepare inmates for life outside their cells.

And although a civil justice reform measure was vetoed by Gov. Brad Henry, it was at least passed in legislative chambers where the idea never before got a hearing, GOP officials said.

``Everybody has to get used to that dynamic,'' said House Speaker Lance Cargill, R-Harrah, who is in his first year as speaker and at age 35 is the youngest state House speaker in the nation. ``That expansion of the Republican agenda, rather than narrowing, is an important distinction.''

The House was controlled by Democrats for 80 years until the GOP took power after the 2004 elections.

The Senate's GOP leader, co-President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City, said the GOP's new authority in the Senate helped them pass nearly every major component of their legislative agenda.

The Senate has been controlled by Democrats since statehood but Democrats and Republicans agreed to share power following last fall's elections when the 48-member body consisted of 24 Democrats and 24 Republicans.

``The tie in the Oklahoma Senate has changed everything at the state Capitol,'' Coffee said. ``Under Democrat control, the Senate was known as the place where good bills go to die. Now that Republicans have an equal say here, we have made the Senate a place where good ideas can thrive.''

``The forces of the status quo aren't able to just kill everything in the state Senate anymore,'' Cargill said.

The Republican-dominated Legislature is asserting itself with traditional Republican values like smaller government and less government spending.

``The hallmark of this year's session was true fiscal conservatism coupled with continued record investments in areas like education and public safety,'' Cargill said. ``In a year when lawmakers could have spent extra money, instead we matched a cut in spending with continued tax relief.''

During the first two years of Republican control of the House, lawmakers passed record tax cuts but were not very disciplined in curbing spending _ a top priority of conservative Republicans, Cargill said. Government grew by between 20 percent and 25 percent over the past two years, he said.

``This year, for the first time we think ever in the history of the state, we're actually spending less money than we did the year before, in a year in which we had more money to spend,'' Cargill. ``It's a remarkable thing indeed.''

As a practical matter, Cargill emerged as the leader of the Legislature this year, a status Henry seemed to acknowledge when he made a rare visit to the House speaker's office two weeks before the Legislature was scheduled to adjourn to discuss differences with Cargill over the state budget and other issues

Cargill said the governor's visit ``was very welcomed.'' Officials said it helped break an impasse in budget negotiations that resulted from Henry's veto of a $6.9 billion general appropriations bill that Henry complained was negotiated by the House and Senate without his input.

The meeting seemed to bring Cargill and Henry closer together after the two had engaged in a vocal and bitter power struggle over control of the budget.

``In the end of the day I'm glad we got the budget done,'' Cargill said. ``Hopefully we're able to learn the lessons of this year.''

Henry said working with the Legislature ``wasn't always easy.''

``The noise of democracy sometimes means a lot of sound and fury, and this legislative session certainly had its share of both, but ultimately lawmakers of both parties found common ground on behalf of the people of Oklahoma,'' Henry said.

The changing political dynamic at the Capitol has had a marked impact on the Democratic side, with Henry asserting himself with his veto power more often than ever in an effort to be heard and Democratic leaders becoming virtually mute in political debate.

Henry used his veto power only 38 times in his first term, just over nine vetoes per year. In March alone, Henry added 135 line-item vetoes to his total when he struck down all agency funding for next year in the general appropriations bill.

Henry said his ability to veto legislation helps strike a balance between the political goals of state lawmakers and his own. Henry's veto of the general appropriations bill sent a message to GOP leaders that they would have to include him in the state budget debate.

``That's why the governor has his veto power,'' Henry said. ``I certainly will not hesitate to use the veto when I think it's appropriate.''
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