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Capitol Insider: Democratic Caucus Chair On ‘Grueling, Intense And Frustrating’ Year

Storme Jones
State Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman.

State Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman, is the Democratic Caucus Chair for the Oklahoma House of Representatives. She says the last year at the state capitol was “the most grueling and intense and frustrating,” of the seven years she has been in office. 2017 may be over, but remnants of last year’s legislative challenges continue.

A second special legislative session called by Gov. Mary Fallin last month has funded state health agencies, but has yet to provide a long-term solution to the state’s revenue issues. The special session remains open as the regular legislative session approaches Feb. 5.

Virgin says it will be difficult to pass revenue-raising measures in an election year. However, she says the House made progress during the first special session when a budget deal with bipartisan support nearly passed out of the chamber.

Full Transcript

Dick Pryor: This is Capitol Insider, your inside look at Oklahoma politics and policy. I'm Dick Pryor with our guest, Democratic state Rep. Emily Virgin of Norman, who is the Democratic Caucus chair. Welcome.

State Rep. Emily Virgin: Thank you.

Pryor: 2017 was a grueling year at the state capitol with the regular legislative session and not one, but two special sessions. The second special session is still open. So what is the goal of that?

Virgin: Dick, I wish I knew. But, I think you hit the nail on the head when you said “grueling,” because this session has certainly been the most grueling and intense and frustrating of the seven years that I've been at the Capitol. But, I would say the point of the second special session is to fix the budget that we are still working on from the last regular session, with the overturning of the [Oklahoma] Supreme Court's decision on the on the cigarette fee, and then we had a first special session where the governor vetoed our revised budget, and so now we're back trying to fix that budget again. I guess third time is maybe the charm, but we are running up against the regular session starting Feb. 5.

Pryor: Are you hearing of any progress on tangible plans for revenue generation?

Virgin: Absolutely. And I think we made progress last session. We got 71 votes in the House for a comprehensive revenue package that provided a  teacher pay raise, a state employee pay raise. But as you know State Question 640 requires 76 out of 101 votes in the House and that threshold is what has been really holding us back.

Pryor: Although the state has shown positive economic growth over the last 12 months, another huge budget hole awaits legislators when the regular session begins Feb. 5, probably about $425 million. Are you seeing any momentum right now for fixing structural issues in the state budget and the budgeting process, so the state doesn't lurch from crisis to crisis every year?

Virgin: We've seen various proposals on other things that are similar to the rainy day fund and stabilization funds, maybe taking some oil and gas money, some gross production tax money and putting it into the stabilization fund to help us in those down years. But it is a structural problem. We're simply not bringing in enough money to meet our needs. There are those who are still talking about waste, fraud and abuse in state agencies and while the state health department situation is certainly concerning, that's not what's happening in every agency in the state. We've just cut them too much. So I think what we're looking at is hopefully going back on those decisions that that got us here in the first place. And like I've said for years, in my caucus to said for years ???, cutting the income tax too low and cutting the gross production tax too low —  after years of talking about those things, it seems like we are making progress on those.

Pryor: So when you look at what is needed in terms of fixing the budget situation right now, this being an election year, how difficult will that be?

Virgin: It will be very difficult. We've proven in odd-numbered years and non-election years that it's nearly impossible to get to that 76-vote threshold. We've never gotten to that since State Question 640 was enacted, and being an election year it's going to be even tougher. But I hope that my colleagues will remember that if we don't do something you're probably going to be facing consequences at the ballot box anyway.

Pryor: You have talked publicly about the issue of sexual misconduct at the Capitol. The "Me Too" movement has become a national force in just a few months. Is that going to be an issue this year in the Oklahoma legislative session?

Virgin: I think so. Even if there aren't specific policy proposals, I think that we'll see an atmosphere of change. I hope that we'll see an atmosphere or environmental change at the Capitol. In my seven years, I have definitely faced some times when I was made to feel very uncomfortable, and I've talked about those times. But I think even worse than female legislators are female staffers and female lobbyists, in terms of how they're treated by by men who absolutely have some power over them. And so the reason that I wanted to speak out was because I know that a lot of other women at the Capitol aren't in that position, don't have the luxury of speaking out like I do. Both caucuses are undergoing mandatory sexual harassment training. I think that's a good step in the right direction. Unfortunately, it's on a partisan basis. Each caucus is doing it separately. I think that's something that we should be able to come together on. So I see a lot of work to be done there.

Pryor: State Rep. Emily Virgin, thank you.

Virgin: Thank you.

Pryor: That's Capitol Insider, if you have questions, email us at news@KGOU.org or contact us on Twitter @KGOUnews. Until next time, I'm Dick Pryor.

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