Budget Spat Gives House Democrats Reason To Crow

Sunday, March 25th 2007, 1:51 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ State House Democrats, nearly invisible on Oklahoma's political landscape the past two years, are finding a reason to exist as Gov. Brad Henry gets ready for a budget showdown with legislative leaders over a state budget they wrote without Henry's input.

Democrats ruled the 101-member Oklahoma House for 80 years before they were toppled in elections in 2004 that brought Republicans to power. House Democrats have wallowed in political mediocrity ever since, excluded from budget talks they used to command and failing to find ways to make a difference as the chamber's minority party.

The Democratic governor's differences with the state budget and suggestions that he will veto much of it give House Democrats a chance to make themselves relevant again.

``We are excited that our voice may finally get to be heard,'' said House Democratic leader Danny Morgan of Prague. ``If the caucus works carefully with the governor on those issues that are important to our constituents, we can make a positive impact for Oklahoma.''

Henry has threatened to line-item veto parts of the $6.9 billion state budget that was passed unanimously in the Senate and by a wide margin in the House last week.

State Treasurer Scott Meacham, a personal friend and close political adviser to the governor, told The Associated Press there is a good chance Henry will veto all funding for the 2008 fiscal year that begins July 1, while authorizing supplemental spending for public schools and state prisons for the remainder of the current fiscal year.

Henry has until Wednesday to decide what to do. For his vetoes to be meaningful, they have to survive an override attempt. That's where House Democrats come in.

It takes two-thirds of the House, or 68 members, to override a gubernatorial veto. A veto would be sustained if 34 House members voted not to override and there are 44 Democrats in the House. Morgan said at least 34 members of his caucus would vote against a veto override and possibly more, depending upon what is vetoed.

Morgan has indicated that Henry and House Democrats share common concerns about the budget and the process in which it was negotiated without input from the governor or the House's Democratic caucus.

Morgan said House Democrats want more revenue for education and state prisons, which he characterized as ``a major shortfall'' in the proposed budget.

``We want to make sure that we don't damage those essential services that the state of Oklahoma has to provide,'' he said.

Meacham, who has discussed the administration's concerns with Morgan, said he hopes House Democrats would sustain Henry's use of the veto pen.

``We would be hopeful that the Senate Democrats would,'' he added. But the chance of that happening is slim since all 24 Democrats in the 48-member Senate voted for the budget.

Now, if any of this veto scenario in the House sounds familiar, there's a reason. It is identical to the political situation that former Republican Gov. Frank Keating found himself in a few years ago when Democrats ruled both chambers and Republicans were still the minority party.

Keating, who served between 1995 and 2002, was one of the most prolific users of the veto in state history, vetoing a total of 302 bills during his eight legislative sessions. None of the vetoes was overridden.

The reason? There were always at least 34 Republicans in the House who were willing to support the Republican governor by voting to sustain his vetoes.

``If you will look at the playbook of former Governor Keating, Governor Henry has the opportunity to be in that same situation,'' Morgan said. Keating's use of the veto and the willingness of House Republicans to support him strengthened both their political statures in the Democrat-controlled Legislature.

The mere threat of a veto by a governor who could guarantee it would be sustained was frequently all it took for Democratic lawmakers to seriously consider GOP-backed measures they might otherwise ignore, Morgan said.

``I think they were able to get a lot of their agenda items, a lot of the issues, moved to the front burner sometimes when the minority party alone was unable to do so,'' he said.

Meacham said the same would be true if Henry's vetoes were sustained by House Democrats.

``I think it would very much strengthen the hands of House Democrats and the governor,'' he said

``That would certainly bring everybody back to the table,'' Morgan said. It may also reopen accords between House and Senate leaders including Republican-backed tax cuts that would accelerate three years of income tax cuts into two and create a tax credit for stay-at-home parents.

A veto would not be a setback to a legislative session that is less than halfway through its four-month run because there is still plenty of time to write the state budget, Morgan said. Lawmakers must adjourn on May 25.

``Instead of waiting until the last week or two of session, we could truly get a meaningful budget and we could do it early,'' he said.

For his part, Republican House Speaker Lance Cargill of Harrah is urging the governor to sign the budget, which he described as a ``strong framework'' for the operation of essential government services.

``A veto threatens the common ground that we have found and will put us all in the position where the session will be dominated by our budget differences,'' Cargill said.

``I would personally hope that he accepts this offer and approves the agreement so we can continue to move forward on the budget and not return to square one.''