As Oklahoma lawmakers prepare for the start of the 2018 legislative session on Feb. 5, they’ll be met with the familiar issues of filling an estimated $425-million budget hole, giving teachers a pay raise, reducing prison overcrowding and maintaining the state’s infrastructure.
Former Republican Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives Kris Steele says it’s time for lawmakers to put statesmanship over partisanship.
“We're Oklahomans,” Steele said. “We're better than what we're seeing right now as far as the behavior that's being exhibited at the state Capitol. People expect better, people deserve better.”
Steele is the executive director of the Education and Employment Ministry, or TEEM. The group advocates for lower incarceration and poverty rates and provides assistance to people reentering society after being incarcerated. He was also appointed to the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board by Gov. Mary Fallin in August 2017.
Steele says he hopes lawmakers will advance criminal justice reforms that previously stalled in the legislature.
“I remain optimistic, simply because the state of Oklahoma cannot continue on its current trajectory as it relates to criminal justice policies, as it relates to criminal justice spending and as it relates to the populations within our prisons.” Steele said.
He says since Oklahoma’s state constitution requires a balanced budget, increased demand for incarceration funding drives down money available for other areas like education, infrastructure and healthcare.
“Spending for corrections in the state of Oklahoma has increased 172 percent over the last two decades,” Steele said. “Think for a minute: where we would be at today if we had increased spending for education, 172 percent over the last two decades? It may be a very different story.”
He also says lawmakers need to pass a teacher pay raise this session.
“I would say at this point in time, a teacher pay raise of at least $5,000 is a must. It has to happen.”
Dick Pryor: This is Capitol Insider, your inside look at Oklahoma politics and policy. I'm Dick Pryor with the eCapitol news director Shawn Ashley, and our guest is former Speaker of the House of Representatives Kris Steele. Welcome.
Kris Steele: Thank you for having me.
Pryor: We are just about a week away from the start of the 2018 legislative session, with a special session still ongoing. What are legislators doing now to get ready for the session?
Steele: This is a very exciting time in the Capitol because everyone's bills have been filed. Those bills are being assigned to the various committees. Everyone should be gearing up for the next session. What is curious is to know how the special sessions have impacted the feelings and the mood within the legislature heading into this regular session. Because ordinarily, at this point in time, most of the representatives and senators would not have had a lot of interaction with each other during the interim.
Shawn Ashley: And you probably watched them during the regular session in 2017 and the two special sessions. Does that kind of work weigh heavily on lawmakers as they come back for the regular session?
Steele: I think it does, to a certain level. It appears that there is a significant amount of frustration within the legislative body itself. It appears that there's a significant amount of frustration among the public, among the voters as well. And I think that just, sort of, the emotions and the stress and the inability to solve some very, very important problems in a productive, mannerly period of time, I think has to be weighing on the minds and attitudes and actions within the legislature.
Pryor: Agencies are going through budget hearings, when they talk to legislators about their needs and their requests for funding. In its budget request, the state Department of Education asked for $289 million to fund a teacher pay raise. Legislators give lip service to teacher pay raises year after year but never can really find the money to fund those pay raises. Why is teacher pay not a higher priority for legislators?
Steele: You know, it's an interesting question and one that I don't truly know the answer to. I would say at this point in time, a teacher pay raise of at least $5,000 is a must. It has to happen. I think legislators probably have good intentions any time that they say that they're in favor of raising teacher pay and providing better resources for teachers and better support for teachers. And so, before they get bogged down into the the other needs of the state of Oklahoma, which are very real. I want to be clear that education is not the only service or entity that needs enhanced funding. But before they get into the onslaught of requests that will come at them, I think they need to take care of the teacher pay raise first and foremost.
Pryor: You have been a huge proponent of changes in the criminal justice system but those efforts stalled out again last year. Do you see it playing out differently this year?
Steele: I sure hope so. I remain optimistic simply because the state of Oklahoma cannot continue on its current trajectory as it relates to criminal justice policies, as it relates to criminal justice spending and as it relates to criminal justice populations, the populations within our prisons. Spending for corrections in the state of Oklahoma has increased 172 percent over the last two decades and it's still not nearly enough to adequately take care and provide meaningful and effective corrections for the number of people. And the reality is, because of the balanced budget amendment and the state of Oklahoma, the more money we spend on corrections, the less money we have to spend on education, on infrastructure, on health care or anything else that we may deem to be an important service of government. So this issue is very important. And it's very connected. I mean, think for a minute where we would be at today if we had increased spending for education 172 percent over the last two decades? It may be a very different story.
Pryor: Speaker Steele, citizens normally just want their government to work. But there seems to be increasing dysfunction at the state Capitol. Why can't legislators, elected officials work together more effectively?
Steele: Well they can and they should. And I say it that way because there is really no excuse for the inability to work together to solve problems. We're Oklahomans. We're better than what we're seeing right now as far as the behavior that's being exhibited at the state Capitol. People expect better, people deserve better.
Pryor: Former Speaker of the House Kris Steele, as always, a pleasure visiting with you. Thank you for joining us.
Steele: Thank you.
Pryor: That's Capitol Insider. You can hear more of this conversation on the Capitol Insider Extra podcast. Until next time, with Shawn Ashley, I'm Dick Pryor.