WHAT happens when someone has little reason to fear being fired and others have little reason to think they can move up the ladder? We may be seeing the result in the Oklahoma Legislature.
Republicans enjoy supermajority control of both chambers of the Legislature and hold the governor's office, yet progress on major issues remains as difficult — if not more so — than when Republicans and Democrats locked horns during years of divided government.
Gridlock occurred in last year's tax debate and could derail this year's effort to address the state's No. 1 economic challenge — our out-of-control workers' compensation system.
Ironically, that legislative inertia may be the result of the GOP's one-party dominance. Today Republicans don't fear losing control and Democrats don't honestly think they can regain it. In a competitive system, both parties strive to generate policy results that boost their electoral appeal. But in a system where wins are automatic based on party affiliation, two things occur: complacency, and the dominant party becomes dominated by people simply seeking power instead of pursuing policy goals.
That's detrimental to Oklahoma's future. It also explains why legislative Republicans are now often the impediment to enacting conservative reforms their party once embraced.
Consider workers' compensation improvement. Although Senate Republicans boldly approved legislation to overhaul the system, House Republicans have been holding back and watering down reform. The bill advancing from House committee last week did not include several provisions deemed crucial by state businesses. A major conservative goal could be undermined or even thwarted by Republicans.
Compare the current state of affairs with the achievements of the Republican House majority of 2005-2006. That group approved the largest tax cuts in state history. Funding reforms put in place in 2005 have since pumped an additional $1 billion into transportation infrastructure. High school graduation standards were adopted. Lawmakers even took a serious stab at workers' comp reform (later thwarted by court rulings, leading to today's overhaul effort).
Since then, Republicans have enacted important policy changes such as lawsuit reform and education improvements, but given the GOP's current dominance, shouldn't Oklahomans expect more? And some Republicans are even backing away from those achievements, bowing to pressure from status-quo forces. Under House Speaker T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, the House has become a fount of bad legislation, ranging from the unconstitutional to the simply ridiculous, even as they've gummed up workers' comp.
Obviously, record revenue collections gave Republican lawmakers more leeway in 2005-2006, but then-House Speaker Todd Hiett, R-Kellyville, was leading a smaller GOP caucus and the House faced a Democratic Senate and a Democratic governor. Yet they achieved major policy successes long sought by conservatives.
Perhaps that was because those Republicans recalled what it was like to serve in the minority. Today's legislative Republicans act as though their majority is permanent. But President Barack Obama won't be in office forever. His reverse-coattails won't always be there to drag down Oklahoma Democrats and prop up weak Republican candidates.
Whether they know it or not, Republicans need a record to run on.
Sadly, as things stand now, it appears the likelihood of enacting and preserving major conservative reforms may depend upon a Democratic resurgence. That may be the only thing that can wake Republicans from their stupor and force them to govern again.