After sweeping into power in November’s election, state’s ultra-conservative Republicans take aim at moderate House leader
Sean Murphy | email@example.com
OKLAHOMA CITY — As Republicans in control of the Oklahoma House opened two days of meetings to set their 2011 agenda this week, their incoming leader was taking shots from the chamber’s ultra-conservative wing because he has put the state’s struggling economy at the top of his agenda rather than social issues.
Members of the House GOP meet Monday and Tuesday, Dec. 6-7. in Bartlesville, and Kris Steele, who will be formally elected as House Speaker next month, believes the Legislature next year should concentrate on economic development and plugging holes in the state budget.
More-conservative Republicans want legislators to tighten access to abortion, relax regulations on firearms and attempt to restrict immigration.
“There’s going to be some fireworks within the caucus,” said state Rep. Mike Christian, R-Oklahoma City, who acknowledged some of his GOP colleagues have privately questioned whether Steele is too liberal to lead the House.
For the first time in state history, Republicans in Oklahoma will control the House, Senate and the governor’s mansion, after Oklahoma voters in November ushered in huge gains for the GOP, including all eight Democrat-held statewide seats on the ballot.
Steele, a soft-spoken minister from Shawnee, said House Republicans are still united — but cracks are obvious among the 70-member-strong Republican majority as they hammer out their agenda for the legislative session that begins in February.
This week’s meetings haven’t gone unnoticed by Oklahomans wanting action on social issues. But moderate House Republicans fear an inordinate amount of attention on social issues will create a House divided and divert attention from the budget and a struggling Oklahoma economy.
“I’m seeing people every day who are concerned because they don’t have a job or health insurance,” said Rep. Doug Cox, R-Grove, an emergency room physician in far northeast Oklahoma. “They could care less about right-to-carry [firearms]), abortion, gays. They’re worried about their health care and putting food on the table.”
State Rep. Richard Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City, agrees.
“I would ask my ultra-conservative friends — do they understand that we are in the bottom of median family income, that we lead the nation in incarceration of female prisoners, that some of our nonviolent, criminal statutes are some of the most oppressive in the nation?” he asked. “We have serious issues in the state that are challenging us, especially when the budget situation is as bleak as it’s been in the history of this state.”
For his part, Steele says he’s never wavered on his commitment to expanding gun rights, restricting abortion or targeting illegal immigration. He said he supports a measure to allow for open carrying of firearms that Democratic Gov. Brad Henry vetoed last year, and that he will not thwart legislative attempts to further restrict abortion or address illegal immigration.
“Just because I’d like to pursue initiatives to create a business-friendly environment in Oklahoma and give us the opportunity to foster job creation and job opportunities for Oklahomans does not mean I’m any less committed to my stance on pro-life issues or Second Amendment rights or states’ rights or any of those things,” Steele said. “I think we can take a balanced approach and pursue an agenda that ultimately accommodates both arenas.”
Republican Gov.-elect Mary Fallin said she agrees with Steele that the state’s budget and fostering a good business environment should be the top priority for lawmakers when they return to the state Capitol in February.
“We’ve got to focus on getting Oklahoma’s economy back on track, creating the very best business climate possible,” Fallin said. “We’ll certainly consider the other ideas that the Legislature has, and that’s not to take away from their ideas, but just says these are the important priorities I believe will get Oklahoma back on track.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 10, 2010.