New Oklahoma House speaker faces challenges within own party
T.W. Shannon will be the first black speaker of Oklahoma's House of Representatives. He said his goal is to be a voice of reason and to ensure all in his GOP caucus are heard.
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A $200 million bond issue to pay for repairs and renovations to the crumbling state Capitol was torpedoed in the last days of this year's session. Some members oppose the bond issue because it would increase the state's indebtedness, and prefer paying for the improvements over a four-or-five year time frame.
“The people are greatly concerned about the infrastructure needs of the state,” Shannon said. “Our state assets have gone neglected for a long time.”
Shannon, who served the past four years as chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said lawmakers must look at the deteriorating condition of the Capitol as well as those of the medical examiner's office and the state's veterans centers.
“I think people would like to see us come up with a plan on how to address those,” he said.
Shannon said Oklahoma's economy has fared better the past couple years than most other states, and he would like to see that trend continue.
“We need to continue to expand our tax base — we need more taxpayers, certainly not more taxes,” he said. “Looking at our tax code will be a part of that discussion.”
Shannon said he agrees with Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, and GOP Gov. Mary Fallin that changes are needed in the workers' compensation system.
“We've got to have a system that does not discourage work but encourages people to get back to work and also takes care of injured workers but should not be overly burdensome on business owners,” he said.
Changing Oklahoma's workers' compensation system from a judicial system to an administrative one is a viable option, Shannon said.
“We need a major overhaul,” he said.
The House Republicans' legislative agenda will be released soon, he said.
Shannon said he expects public schools will draw attention next year. He would like to see legislators fund legislative mandates and would like teacher pay to be based on performance instead of the number of years of service.
“We've got to make sure we've got highly trained, highly qualified, highly motivated teachers in the classroom,” he said. “Our 19th century model of paying solely based on years of experience doesn't work.”
Shannon said he also wants to beat back the influence of state agency heads, who have gained standing since 12-year legislative terms kicked in several years ago.
“The lines between regulators and legislators have gotten blurred,” he said. “I hope to empower the Legislature to be driving policy issues. A regulator's job is not to set policy and legislative agenda. …. We've got fiefdoms.
“It's the state agency heads that are driving the train right now and I hope to turn that around,” Shannon said. “That's my first and foremost goal.”
Shannon, elected to the House in 2006, is articulate and has a clear understanding of Oklahoma politics. He worked on the congressional staffs of former U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts and U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore.
He'll have to use his skills quickly. Before overseeing last month's swearing-in ceremony, Shannon had never presided in the speaker's chair in the House. Neither has Rep. Mike Jackson, R-Enid, who was elected speaker pro tem by House Republicans last month.
Rep. Pam Peterson, R-Tulsa, whom Shannon has named as majority floor leader, is responsible for assigning bills to committees, scheduling bills for floor hearings and running business on the floor during session. But she has had little floor experience.
Shannon will be counting on Reps. Fred Jordan, R-Jenks, and Dennis Johnson, R-Duncan, who he tabbed as majority leaders, to help Peterson and with other legislative matters. Johnson has filled in as floor leader and Jordan is former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
Shannon, who runs a public relations firm with his wife, Devon, was the first Republican elected from House District 62 and the first black elected in southern Oklahoma. He's also a member of the Chickasaw Nation.
“I'm honored to be the speaker and the fact that I'm the first African-American, it says a lot about my colleagues who were willing to trust me,” he said. “But I know that they didn't do it because of my race or even in spite of my race. They did it because they believe I've got some ideas and some leadership abilities that can help, A, unite this caucus and, B, hopefully provide leadership to the entire Legislature.
“My race and ethnic heritage, it's a part of who I am,” Shannon said. “But I represent the people of District 62 and I represent all the people of Oklahoma.”
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