For almost 40 years, I’ve had the opportunity to observe the state Legislature closely from a variety of perspectives. Never have I been as disappointed as I am now over the marginal ethics observed by many in our most important branch of state government.
In recent years, the common good often appears to be sacrificed by a virtual buying and selling of legislation or the prevention of legislation.
The deterioration of the two major parties has been a major factor in the current situation. Instead of serving as watchdogs challenging the avarice of the other, they’re like two fat hogs at the trough, grunting and bumping into each other as they try to get to the spoils of politics.
The disintegration and dumbing down of the mass media have greatly diminished the spotlight of scrutiny, examination and analysis needed to uncover and report political misfeasance and wrongdoing.
Even term-limit reform has contributed to the current situation by greatly reducing institutional knowledge among legislators and creating more opportunities to influence campaigns with the additional elections required to fill term-limited vacancies.
In the past, the challenge was keeping lobbyists in line as they peddled their influence to the Legislature. Now the greater challenge seems to be dealing with some legislators and their campaign consultants who appear to be offering their legislative influence for campaign contributions. These campaign consultants look and act like the mirror image of lobbyists, yet they are not subject to any oversight or regulation.
Stories abound of legislators using these intermediaries to “shake down” lobbyists and special interests in what has been termed “pay to play” at the state Capitol. While rumors abound about these activities, no one will break the code of silence and publicly go on the record with details. One can only speculate as to how much unreported money circulates through these backroom channels.
The people of Oklahoma passed a constitutional amendment in 1990 to create the Ethics Commission to make rules for ethical conduct of state campaigns, for ethical conduct of state officers and employees, and to enforce other ethical state laws.
Unfortunately, the Ethics Commission has been at the mercy of the Legislature for annual appropriations to fund its operation. Since its inception, it has been underfunded, understaffed, under-equipped and delegated to a dark corner of the Capitol’s basement.
This year, the Legislature added insult to injury by earmarking part of the commission’s appropriation for a computer system it didn’t want or need. The commission has responded with a lawsuit seeking to enforce the constitutional provision that requires the Legislature to appropriate enough funding “to enable it to perform its duties.”
Gov. Brad Henry is trying to jawbone the commission into backing down from the litigation. I think the governor should back off himself. This is the strongest effort I’ve seen the commissioners take to fully perform their constitutional duties since the commission’s creation.
In addition, public interest groups such as the Oklahoma Academy, Leadership Oklahoma, Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs and Oklahoma Policy Institute should join together to see what additional reforms and efforts should be made to give the commission the resources it needs to follow and disclose all the money that finds its way into the legislative process.
Bleakley is publisher of Oklahoma Gazette.