Legislative discord follows GOP takeover

Saturday, January 15th 2005, 12:51 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Three weeks from the start of the 2005 Oklahoma Legislature, talk of bipartisanship has given way to Democratic charges the new Republican majority is more interested in playing raw politics than anything else.

Tempers flared last Friday after a mass firing of House employees, a move that Democrats said hurts employee morale and the process of getting bills drafted.

Democrats already were angry over what they considered as divisive House rules that were pushed through by GOP leaders at an organizational meeting earlier this month.

The latest flare-up Friday prompted Rep. Jari Askins, Democratic minority leader, to issue a news release accusing new House Speaker Todd Hiett of ``a reign of terror'' and harming the House as an institution.

Askins, D-Duncan, questioned the wisdom of firing ``nuts-and-bolts'' employees, including several policy analysts, so close to the Jan. 20 deadline for bill introductions.

She said getting rid of so many employees and replacing them with outsiders with little practical experience cedes power to the Senate and ``shortchanges the public'' by removing expertise relied upon by House members.

Hiett, R-Kellyville, responded with a one paragraph statement in which he said he has given his chief of staff, Doug Enevoldsen, the responsibility of organizing the House staff in a way that is most benefits the process and taxpayers.

``The changes that we have made will ultimately allow the House to operate in a more efficient and productive manner,'' he said.

In all, about two dozen House staffers have been fired or forced to retire. On Friday, eight House staffers, including a deputy director, were fired and two more agreed to leave.

Nancy Tessier, an administrative rules analyst, said she was shocked. ``I guess it was because I'm not a go-getter Republican,'' said Tessier, who had two years left until retirement.

Askins accused Hiett of removing staffers with expertise ``so that only he and the special interest groups he represents have the opportunity to be heard at the state Capitol.''

Enevoldsen denied the changes will hurt bill drafting and said the House staff is being streamlined to better serve members.

He said politics was not a consideration and some of the fired House staffers will soon be replaced with lower salaried workers.

``We are in the process of talking to people,'' Enevoldsen said.

Askins was not satisfied with statements by Hiett and Enevoldsen.

``When this many years of experience are terminated from a legislative staff, it has to have a negative impact on the ability to get the job done,'' she said.

She added: ``I think the morale for the employees is very low and for those of us who care a great deal about the image and the professionalism of this institution, there is nothing more disturbing than to have a staff that is wondering whether this is a place they want to continue to work.''

Mainly because of term limits, the House begins the session with 39 new members, the largest freshman class since court-ordered redistricting in 1965.

In an interview earlier in the week, Hiett dismissed gripes over temporary rules, saying it was a case of a few Democrats showing they are ``more interested in obstruction and causing problems for the majority than they are in establishing good policy for the state of Oklahoma.''

But Hiett said House officials are reviewing one rule that Democrats said appeared to bar legislators from displaying memorabilia, including plaques and awards they had received.

``I think they are all a crock,'' Rep. Al Lindley, D-Oklahoma City, said of the temporary rules. He said traditionally the House had operated under old rules until permanent rules are adopted.

``I'm really upset by the fact that somebody would just put that on the whole body. No Democrat, as far as I know, ever sat down with the Republicans and went over the rules.''

Hiett said a rule affecting the display of slogans in House offices was aimed at preventing ``political activity within a state taxpayer funded office of building.''

``We will be seeking Democratic input into the permanent rules that will be adopted in the next few weeks,'' he said.

Republican picked up enough seats in the November election to seize control of the House for the first time since the 1921-22 session.