Governor Brad Henry Using Old Gubernatorial Tactic

Sunday, April 15th 2007, 12:00 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - In his current budget fight with a Republican-dominated Legislature, Democratic Gov. Brad Henry is making full use of the veto pen, a favorite weapon of past governors. Henry exercised his veto power only 38 times in his first term, just over nine vetoes per year.

That figure pales in comparison to his predecessor, Republican Frank Keating, who had 302 vetoes, averaging 151 per term.

Henry is catching up.

In March, Henry added 135 line-item vetoes to his total in one action when he struck down all agency funding for next year in a $6.9 billion general appropriations bill.

Ever since, Henry and legislative leaders have engaged in an almost daily verbal fight over who is right and who is wrong.

So far, neither side has budged from their positions, threatening a smooth adjournment of the Legislature by a May 25 deadline and increasing the chances of a special session.

The veto -- sometimes even the threat of a veto -- proved to be an effective tool for Keating and other governors seeking concessions from the Legislature.

Former Gov. Henry Bellmon, another Republican, once vetoed the appropriations to the Oklahoma Tax Commission to force lawmakers to go along with his idea of appointing an administrator at the agency.

There were warning signs that Henry's budget veto was coming.

Henry repeatedly told legislators that he did not want to be excluded from budget negotiations, but his office was not part of the agreement announced by leaders of the divided Senate and the Republican House.

Also, many of Henry's key programs were ignored in the budget bill.

Legislative leaders canned his request for more cash for two funds designed to spur economic development and technology research, reduced his proposal for $1,100 teacher pay raises from $1,100 to $600, and crippled his "Insure Oklahoma" program, which seeks to help small businesses pay for health care.

Lawmakers also passed on the idea of using bonds to catch up on the backlog of endowed chairs at state universities and to fund other programs.

They left $66 million on the table, of which $24.5 million already has been designated to provide emergency funds for prisons and to buy land for Armed Services centers that will replace National Guard armories.

House Speaker Lance Cargill, R-Harrah, and Senate leaders Mike Morgan, D-Stillwater, and Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City, have criticized the veto, saying there simply was not enough funding to do what Henry wanted to do.

When Henry submitted his executive budget, lawmakers had about $250 million more to spend than they have now because of reduced revenue estimates.

Legislative leaders have demanded that Henry present a second budget, while the governor says that would only delay the process.

The lawmakers have largely danced around Henry's demand that he and members of the Democratic minority in the House be included in writing the final budget.

The 44 House Democrats in the 101-member House, meanwhile, have given Henry more clout by vowing to stick together to block any attempt to override Henry's budget veto.

In an attempt to get around the veto of the general appropriations bill, leaders agreed last week to advance five agency bills that contained the same funding that was in the original bill and in Henry's original budget.

The governor quickly said he would veto those bills, too, and renewed his call for budget talks.

Cargill called it the "theater of the absurd" for Henry to veto agency funding that mirrored his original recommendations.

Henry's veto is reminiscent of Keating's action in the first year of his second term when the GOP governor knocked out a $340 million appropriation to the state welfare agency and other funding.

At the time, Democratic leaders accused Keating of essentially vetoing his own budget. A spokesman for the GOP governor said Democrats were erecting a smoke screen to conceal their refusal to address Keating's programs.

Scott Meacham, state treasurer and Henry's top negotiator on the budget, insists money can be found to address the governor's priorities.

Henry says nothing can be accomplished unless all sides start a dialogue.

A number of factors may be playing into the current budget impasse. Among those mentioned are the weakening of the position of Senate Democrats under a power-sharing agreement, the fact that the House is led by a new speaker -- and political considerations.

Although he says he does not want to go to Washington, Henry, who was re-elected in a landslide, is considered a possible Senate candidate in the future and Meacham has been mentioned as a Democratic gubernatorial prospect.

Another factor may be hard feelings left over from 2006, when Henry rankled some Senate Democrats -- and some Republicans, too -- by teaming with the GOP speaker on a budget plan approved at a special session.

Pride is almost always a factor in budget battles as leaders seek to preserve their own projects.

"I think we're seeing some of that here and how we get over that is the question that everyone is asking," said Sen. David Myers, R-Ponca City, appropriations leader.