DURING his 12 years in the Oklahoma House of Representatives, Kris Steele tried to focus more on making gains for the state than on playing games at the Capitol, and he wound up going from a back bencher in the minority party to House speaker. The newest members of the House would do well to study Steele's record and learn from it. In fact current leadership would, too.
A Republican from Shawnee, Steele is a solid conservative but not an ideologue. That put him at odds during his two years as speaker with far-right members of his caucus who were driven by ideology and made it their work to embarrass Steele by derailing or delaying his initiatives. To his credit, he rejected any impulse he may have had to stoop to their level.
Steele made himself available to members from the other side of the aisle. Unlike many current House Republicans, he knew what it was like to be in the minority party. “It's very important to remember we're all Oklahomans first,” Steele told The Oklahoman's editorial board last week. “No one party has a monopoly on good ideas.”
Throughout his career in the Legislature, which ends officially in the coming days, he was eager to take on big-picture issues — the sorts of things that have the potential to affect Oklahomans for the better. An example is a Medicaid reform bill he authored in 2006 with former Sen. Tom Adelson, D-Tulsa, who was one of the most liberal members of that body. Medicaid is a complex, weighty subject and getting that bill to the governor's desk required tons of work, not to mention plenty of compromise.
Steele proposed major changes to state corrections policy, designed to alleviate prison crowding and save costs. These were not easy sells to a Republican-controlled Legislature whose members generally are more concerned with locking up offenders and then forgetting about them. That approach may win votes, but it also strains the budget as prisons grow ever more crowded year after year.
As speaker, Steele pushed for major changes at the Department of Human Services, the state's largest agency. He advocated for reforms in the education, workers' compensation and civil justice systems. A change in the public pension system, requiring cost-of-living adjustments to be fully funded when they're approved, decreased the state's unfunded liability by $5 billion.
There were smaller victories, too. He was House author in 2009 of the bill creating the Silver Alert program, which alerts authorities if a senior citizen or a person with dementia goes missing. Steele pushed for agency consolidation as a way to save the state millions of dollars, and as speaker improved transparency in the House by, among other things, requiring conference committees to meet publicly.
There were any number of defeats along the way as well. His effort to create a House ethics committee to oversee members' conduct got shot down during the 2012 session. So did efforts to pass a bond issue to pay for improvements to the state Capitol. Politics got in the way — GOP members didn't want to be seen as contributing to the state's debt.
Republicans who hold supermajorities in the House and Senate need to focus on the macro, not the micro. They have failed to do so with the Capitol bond issue. As they settle in for 2013 GOP lawmakers should remember something Steele told us back in 2006, after his Medicaid bill got to the finish line: “There's not a lot of problems out there that we can't solve when Oklahomans get together.”