FOR years, Oklahoma lawmakers used a secretive conference committee process to cut deals and unveil resulting legislation, with little time for public scrutiny and wide latitude for abuse. In 2011, House lawmakers implemented reforms that dramatically improved transparency. Now, under House Speaker T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, the House is in a partial retreat from these reforms. This is unwarranted and could justify public skepticism of lawmakers' ethics.
When the House and Senate pass conflicting versions of the same bill, the legislation is sent to a joint conference committee to hammer out a compromise. In the past, those committees rarely held public meetings. Members didn't cast votes in public, and the language of bills was kept secret until reaching the floor of either chamber.
Under the 2011 reforms, House standing conference committees were established that hold public meetings with public votes and advance notice. Most importantly, any proposed legislation must be provided in advance. However, House rules state that the speaker appoints all conference committee members — not just standing conference committees. This allows the speaker to create special conference committees operating under the old, secretive rules.
Shannon created at least four such groups this year, most notably one dealing with House Bill 2097. The legislation, by Speaker Pro Tem Mike Jackson, R-Enid, would have effectively cut taxes on chewing tobacco alternatives and other tobacco products in development. The HB 2097 machinations were notable since a House committee had already rejected a similar measure. HB 2097 was ultimately voted down, but the extraordinary steps Shannon and other lawmakers took to revive the proposal in secret raised eyebrows.
According to tobaccomoney.com, in 2012 when Shannon did not face an opponent but was poised to become speaker, he got a $3,000 contribution from the parent firm of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. Since 2006, tobacco interests have given generously to the Oklahoma Speaker's Ball, the Republican State House Committee and the Oklahoma House PAC.
Shannon appointed special conference committees for three other bills. House Bill 1794 would have provided a $1,000 bonus to state employees at a potential cost of $34.4 million. House Bill 2145 would have spent $7.3 million on pay raises for Highway Patrol officers. House Bill 1719 was an education measure.
The special conference committee for HB 2145 consisted of only three Republican lawmakers, including Shannon and Jackson. In the session's final days, Shannon abruptly claimed Republican leadership had agreed to fund trooper pay raises as part of a Moore tornado relief package. No such agreement existed. Keith Barenberg, president of the Oklahoma State Troopers Association, later said, “I would hope that they were not just playing politics.”
Given that only three lawmakers were on the House conference committee, which was structured so those lawmakers did nothing in public view, it's hard to believe otherwise.
The House implemented conference committee reforms after former Rep. Randy Terrill, R-Moore, was accused of exploiting the secretive process to bribe a senator. While the Senate maintains closed conference committees, the transparency of the House process has ensured any resulting shenanigans are still exposed to the light of day.
Nothing good can come from restricting public transparency. There's no reason to revert to the secret backroom deal-making that marked Democratic control of the Legislature. If a bill is good policy, it should withstand public scrutiny. If it can't, history shows there's usually a good reason why.