Capitol crowds sparse as Legislature convenes

Monday, February 4th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The Oklahoma Legislature's opening day is usually accompanied by noisy demonstrators who crowd into Capitol hallways to rally lawmakers to their point of view.

This year, things look different.

The Capitol's hallways were nearly vacant and the usual public rallies were gone Monday as lawmakers prepared to convene for the 2002 Legislature.

``Maybe it's the calm before the storm,'' House Floor Leader Danny Hilliard, D-Sulphur, said.

``It will not stay this way.''

While a handful of lobbyists made their way into lawmakers' offices, most Oklahomans stayed away. Rallies were not scheduled in recognition of the state's budget crisis and construction of the Capitol dome which has sealed off the fourth-floor rotunda, where many rallies are staged.

``There's no reason to bring in 2,000 people when you can't get them in,'' said Jim Curry, president of the Oklahoma AFL-CIO.

The labor organization traditionally holds one of the largest rallies of the legislative session, but fewer than a dozen union supporters accompanied Curry Monday morning.

The 10,000-member Oklahoma Public Employees Association chose not to conduct its customary rally because of the economic crisis, executive director Gary Jones said.

``With the financial picture we realize that the chances for a pay raise for state employees and other enhancements are going to be tough to come by,'' Jones said.

Gov. Frank Keating's $5.6 billion proposed budget proposes cuts of up to 6 percent to help make up a $262 million budget gap between anticipated revenues and spending commitments.

Jones and other representatives of the OPEA planned to visit the Capitol Monday for Keating's State of the State address and meet with lawmakers.

But Jones said it would be inappropriate to rally in light of the budget and the dome construction project.

``It was going to logistically make it very tough to do what our people had done in the past,'' he said.

Jones said OPEA members plan to visit the Capitol next month for the group's annual lobby day. OPEA is call for pay raises for certain state jobs, holding down the cost of worker health insurance and job protection for the state's 34,000 public employees.