As new speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, Rep. Jeff Hickman has inherited one of the most powerful and difficult jobs at the Capitol. Its power derives from the position’s authority – bills advance or die on the speaker’s say; the speaker also is one of the leading voices on budget negotiations. The difficulty stems from trying to lead a large and sometimes rowdy Republican caucus.
But lead he must.
Hickman, R-Fairview, should leave politics at the door during this election year — a tall order, perhaps — and make the advancement of solid policy his priority. We suggest he start by pushing the idea of a bond issue to pay for Capitol repairs, and perhaps some other state infrastructure needs. This has languished for several years, including that in which Rep. T.W. Shannon was speaker.
Shannon, R-Lawton, gave up the gavel last week. He’s running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Tom Coburn. Shannon staunchly opposed the use of bond issues for any reason. He correlated bond debt with the deficit spending seen in Washington, D.C., even though the two aren’t related.
Politicians in Washington are spending money they don’t have. Oklahoma has the revenue needed to pay the debt service on sizable bond issues. Indeed, the state’s bond adviser has said that at current interest rates, the debt service on a $160 million bond issue — a figure used for the Capitol repairs — would be $10.1 million per year over 25 years.
Gov. Mary Fallin and Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, both Republicans and solidly conservative by any measure, are open to using a bond issue for the crumbling Capitol. In her State of the State speech last week, Fallin noted that 41 percent of the state’s bond indebtedness will come off the books in four years; 86 percent will be wiped over the next 13 years.
In other words, the state can absolutely afford a bond issue for this purpose. It could afford an even larger bond issue, if legislators decided they wanted to do something about the Jim Thorpe Building or the Veterans Affairs building, which also are in disrepair.
That may be asking too much. After all, Shannon wasn’t the only voice in his caucus who opposed a bond issue. Many GOP members think it’s a bad idea, even if they apparently don’t think it’s irresponsible to take out a mortgage to pay for their homes or to secure a bank loan to buy an automobile.
Bond issues offer a responsible, conservative way to repair and maintain infrastructure. Ratings agencies have been telling state officials for years that Oklahoma needs more bonded indebtedness because it shows they’re investing in the state. It also helps to secure lower interests rates.
In advance of being selected speaker, Hickman said he didn’t think anyone questions the need to repair the Capitol. “It’s unsafe. It’s an embarrassment,” he told The Associated Press. “Obviously, something needs to be done.”
He now has the clout to help get that something done. If the House rejects the idea, so be it. But that should happen only after he has worked hard to sell them on the merits — as opposed to simply waving his hand and saying, “Not on my watch.”