Todd Hiett leaving personal stamp on state government policy

Saturday, January 28th 2006, 3:12 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ With his tax-cutting bent and uncompromising style, Speaker of the House Todd Hiett has left an indelible mark on state government policy halfway through his two-year term in the House's most powerful job.

But Hiett _ Oklahoma's first Republican House speaker in more than 80 years _ has demonstrated something else to friends and critics alike: A willingness to work with lawmakers from both parties to create and expand government programs that promote his vision of a prosperous Oklahoma.

The trend, highlighted in legislation and spending programs promoted by House GOP leaders, seems to defy Hiett's conservative, less-is-more agenda for state government.

But Hiett said the proposals, including tripling the budget for state drug courts and a plan to eventually increase road and bridge maintenance funding by $170 million a year, are part of an effort to make state government more efficient and more effective.

``I think there's a shift in style that has occurred that really maybe none of us recognize yet,'' said Hiett, a farmer and rancher from Kellyville who is making his first run for a statewide office in a campaign for lieutenant governor.

State Sens. Scott Pruitt and Nancy Riley are also seeking the Republican nomination. House Democratic Leader Jari Askins of Duncan and Peter Regan, former chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Dan Boren, D-Okla., are seeking the Democratic nomination.

Republican Lt. Gov. Mary Fallin is leaving to run for Congress.

Hiett favors smaller government and has proposed a $325 million tax cut that includes lowering the state income tax and elimination of the estate tax.

The income tax cut would reduce the maximum rate from 6.25 percent to 5.85 percent. Last year, Hiett pushed to cut the maximum rate from 6.65 percent, a proposal that was passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Brad Henry.

``These tax cuts are the best way if not the only way to keep the dollars out of government's hands,'' Hiett said. ``While you are limiting the growth of government, you're also at the same time enhancing the growth of the private sector. That is the way you build a strong economy.''

But Hiett supports targeted spending increases. Drug courts, roads and bridges and a plan to beef up child abuse and neglect laws have all received Hiett's enthusiastic endorsement.

The spending increases have been funded by revenue from economic growth and have not involved tax increases.

``If you look at everywhere we have invested, we have demanded major reforms,'' Hiett said.

For example, Hiett said he supported last year's $500 million bond issue for higher education only after reforms he sought _ including setting aside $25 million of the $500 million for a bond bank to handle future capital needs at colleges and universities _ were accepted.

``I did what I said I would do,'' he said.

The proposed child abuse and neglect legislation is named after Kelsey Smith-Briggs, a 2-year-old who died from blunt force trauma to the abdomen on Oct. 11 while her care was being monitored by child welfare workers.

Among other things, the plan would reduce caseloads and provide more education and training for child protection case workers at the Department of Human Services. DHS officials are still assessing the proposed cost to the agency.

``We acknowledge those caseloads are large. We're looking at reducing those caseloads,'' Hiett said. But the spending plan will come with a package of reforms for the agency.

``I absolutely think that we can do a better job, a more efficient job of delivering services in our agencies,'' Hiett said. ``Let's prioritize our spending so that we're not spending dollars that are not necessary or needed or of any benefit to the state.''

With Hiett's support, lawmakers appropriated $8 million more for drug court programs last year, increasing the state's drug court budget to $11.5 million _ triple the budget for the previous year.

Terri White, spokeswoman for the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, said the appropriation was part of a historic year for the agency in which Hiett, Henry and Senate President Pro Tem Mike Morgan, D-Stillwater, supported the expansion of the agency's drug and mental health programs.

``Drug courts are the most effective crime prevention we have for someone whose crimes are drug- and alcohol-related,'' White said. ``We prevent future crime victims in drug court more than we prevent future crime victims in any other program.

``Once we presented the hard data to Speaker Hiett, he has been a huge advocate of the program.''

Even Hiett's adversaries have noticed the shift in his style. Sen. Cal Hobson, who battled with Hiett over the higher education bond issue last year, said many GOP lawmakers opposed expansion of drug courts while Democrats controlled the Legislature. Republicans took control of the House in 2004.

``When you're in the minority for 82 years, the easiest thing to do is sit on the sidelines and throw stones,'' Hobson said. ``When you're driving the train, you're inclined to be a little more accommodating.''

He said Hiett's support of drug courts does not signal a major shift in direction for the GOP-controlled House, especially on corrections issues.

``It does not mean there is a real pattern of change. There's a little ray of hope,'' he said.

Hiett, who must leave the House this year due to 12-year term limits, said his campaign for lieutenant governor will not interfere with his duties in his final year as speaker.

``My top priority is to lead the House,'' he said. ``That is such a short period of time and I have such a long agenda.''