The biggest obstacle facing Oklahoma House Speaker-elect T.W. Shannon in the upcoming session may not come from the other side of the political aisle.
Shannon, who is expected to be formally elected speaker of the House of Representatives in early January, will have to keep factions from being divisive among the largest number of House Republicans to ever serve in the lower chamber.
“My goal next session is to hopefully be a voice of reason and also to be continuing to push for a conservative agenda that also provides for economic growth in the state,” said Shannon, R-Lawton. “I’m confident we’ll be able to do it.”
Shannon will be the first black speaker of the House and, at 34, he’ll also be the youngest to serve in the powerful post. He said he will work to ensure that all voices are heard in his caucus. Republicans for the next two years will have a 72-29 majority.
Shannon told The Oklahoman he is driven to pass legislation to improve Oklahoma’s economy, and is aware that members of his caucus have a wide range of priorities that at times will be counter to the majority of the membership.
“What I’ve tried to do is elevate the level of discussion so that we stay focused on the issues that are important to the people of Oklahoma, not the personalities that may proffer those divisions,” he said. “I don’t have any ego in this role of speaker so people who disagree, I welcome it. It’s helpful to have competing ideas. At the end of the day, though, people expect you to come together and come up with solutions. We can have disagreements and we will, but we have to be about solutions.
“As the leader, my goal is to always keep the goal in mind,” Shannon said. “It’s easy for people to get sidetracked on rat-chasing rabbit trails when they lose focus of the goal. If I can keep the goal before members that we want to improve the prosperity of Oklahoma, I think that’s how you do it.
“The bottom line is I don’t get to pick who comes to the Legislature,” Shannon said. “I have to use who the people send, and I plan to use them.”
Shannon said the increase in Republican legislators in the House and Senate after November’s election indicates voters want limited government and economic prosperity in the state.
Former House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, struggled during his two years in the leadership post with far-right conservative members who this past year resorted to working with House Democrats to derail or at least mire down the GOP leadership’s measures. That faction of the House Republican caucus takes credit for Shannon’s election last year as speaker; Steele’s preferred successor lost in a close caucus vote.
In November, House Republicans clearly reaffirmed the selection of Shannon as House leader. Members voted unanimously to change Shannon’s title from designated House speaker to speaker-elect.
A retreat for GOP House members earlier this month at Medicine Park went well, according to several members who attended it and a similar retreat two years ago in Bartlesville. They said this year’s retreat was calm, compared with a protest outside the Bartlesville retreat by about 60 social or constitutional conservatives, including one dressed as Santa Claus, who worried the House Republican leaders were not conservative enough.
Shannon said last month’s retreat focused on discussing issues and coming up with an agenda for the session, which starts Feb. 4 and goes through late May.
“We didn’t get into personality disputes,” he said. “Our caucus retreat positions us nicely to show that we’re going to be the chamber of not just ideas but solutions that we’ve been talking about for a really long time.”
House Minority Leader Scott Inman, D-Del City, said Shannon can be an effective leader because he’s levelheaded, smart and has an affable personality. He said he believes that Shannon wants to work with all members in the House, from the far-right members of the GOP caucus to Democrats.
“He wants to work with everyone and we’re going to do all we can to ensure that that good working relationship continues,” Inman said. “While we won’t agree on every subject, we think that there are some common-ground areas when it comes to education or when it comes to public transportation and infrastructure that we can work together and kind of get beyond the fringes that exists in politics and just do what’s right by Oklahoma.”
Shannon said he supports the two-party system and will allow Democrats to be heard.
“The voters made a decision that they clearly wanted Republicans leading the discussion, leading the charge and that’s what’s going to happen,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean that’s at the peril of Democrat influence because they certainly should be a part of the conversation because it’s a better conversation when you’ve got a two-party system.”
The House Republican caucus appears to still be split about how to pay for capital improvements to the state.
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.”