House Speaker Kris Steele says new rules “dramatically reform” legislative process
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Published: 09-Feb-2011
by Patrick B. McGuigan

Published 09-Feb-2011

Oklahoma Speaker of the House Kris Steele expressed satisfaction, in a session with reporters Monday evening (February 7), that his colleagues had that day “passed historic reforms to our legislative process. The new rules will open up the process significantly.”

Steele was referring to new provisions he said will “dramatically reform” the operations of the House of Representatives. Among other provisions, the new strictures require that Conference Committees hold public meetings with recorded votes.

Steele, a Shawnee Republican, told CapitolBeatOK and other news organizations that under the new process, journalists and “regular citizens” will be able to track changes in bills as they occur. He explained, “The changes, as I've seen it and it's has been described, will be on a split screen where you can see the original bill. It will be user friendly.” Steele joked about the “green and pink” colors that will reflect revisions to text.

Those rules passed late Monday afternoon, after several hours of debate and discussion on the floor of the House. Although final approval provided a comfortable margin, there were some relatively close votes in the course of the afternoon legislators spent on the matter. Steele told reporters, “We have been working on these diligently. The committee spent hundreds of hours of work preparing these proposals and I am proud of them.” The rules emerged from a panel Steele appointed last fall after his party gained an unprecedented 70-31 advantage over Democrats in the Legislature.

Responding to criticisms that not all members of the House had a chance to review the rules before Monday's debate and vote, Steele noted, “I agree the ending was frustrating. The weather [last week's blizzard] impacted the final process. Last Saturday [February 5] was when members of our caucus were going to have four hours to review things, but that was thwarted by the aftermath of the storm.” Steele noted that conference calls were held and the Republican caucus met in Monday morning, before Governor Mary Fallin's State of the State address, to review the rules.

“Some frustration came from the sheer inability to get everything in place due to the weather situation. I believe we are in a place of openness where we have never been,” Steele said. He told reporters the House is still in negotiation with the Senate for “adopting joint rules for Appropriations.” The Speaker said he wants to avoid “shell bills” – proposals with no content other than titles. Such bills have in past years become the means by which undebated changes in statutes were slipped into law. The late Deacon New, an award-winning editorial writer at The Oklahoman, helped popularize a term for such secretive changes in law, dubbing them “woolyboogers.”

The final rules did not attract support from House Democrats. However, Steele was respectful of the minority caucus, saying, “I believe that part of their role is to question and challenge majority decisions. I truly believe they will be happy in the long-term with these new procedures. The minority party made 15 recommendations recently, and six or seven of them were adopted [Monday].”

Discussing the sometimes provocative tone of the debate about the rules will that govern daily life at the Capitol this spring, the Speaker said, “Our members can have deep and healthy discussions and disagreements. The members who were debating these rules did so passionately, and they believed what they said. I have learned that sometimes the process here is noisy, but at the end of the day it works.” Steele went on to say he believes the new rules will make the process work even better.”

In a prepared statement circulated Tuesday (February 8), the Shawnee solon said, “While we have made tremendous strides towards increased transparency in recent years, the rule changes we have now adopted dramatically increase the opportunity for public scrutiny of legislative actions and implement greater safeguards against last-minute changes escaping thorough review.”

House legislative staff, in a press release sent to CapitolBeatOK on Tuesday, summarized the most significant changes in the House Rules as follows:

“Conference Committee Reforms

“When the House and Senate pass different versions of the same bill, the legislation is then sent to a joint conference committee where a final version is negotiated. In the past, those conference committees did not convene in any actual meeting of the members and no votes were cast in public.

“Under the reforms adopted this week, the House will establish permanent standing conference committees to handle its half of the process. Those permanent conference committees will hold public meetings and all votes will be cast in public. Advance public notice that includes a detailed listing of bills on the agenda will be required for each conference committee meeting.

“In addition, the rules prevent any standing conference committees from meeting during a floor session of the House unless special leave has been granted by the Speaker of the House.

“The House rules will continue to prohibit completely gutting a bill in conference and replacing it with language unrelated to the measure’s original topic.

“To provide extra safeguards against such action, no bill can be assigned to a standing conference committee unless the group’s membership includes the chairperson and vice-chairperson of the traditional standing committee that previously heard the measure.

“Steele said there would be six standing conference committees with 10 members each, including both Democrats and Republicans on each committee.

“Prior to receiving a vote in conference committee, proposed versions of each bill will be publicly posted online for member and public review with a link to previous versions with changes highlighted.

“As in the past, for a bill to emerge from conference committee and receive a vote from the entire Oklahoma House of Representatives, the conference committee report must receive the support of a majority of both the House and Senate members constituting the conference committee.

“The reforms also include a hard 24-hour rule that requires a House conference committee report to be filed and posted online for a full day before it can be considered on the House floor. Previously, there was no 24-hour rule during the final two days of session.”

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