DURING his 12 years in the Legislature, Kris Steele always preferred policy over politics. Would that more of his colleagues felt the same way.
Unfortunately, the Republican-controlled Legislature has grown more and more partisan every year during Steele's tenure. He spent his first four years as a member of the minority party and leaves after two years as House speaker with Republicans in firm control of the House and the Senate. Yet the 2012 session was marked as much by what the GOP didn't accomplish as what it did. Chalk that up to competing interests in the two chambers, and to a Republican faction in the House that took great delight in trying to thwart Steele at every turn.
When he laid out an agenda in 2011 that focused on issues he believed would serve the overall interests of the state, he was demonized by the GOP's ideologue caucus in the House, which was upset that social issues weren't front and center. That group pestered Steele all year, collaborating with the Democratic minority to ensure that bills he liked failed to receive enough votes to go into effect immediately upon the governor's signing. That pettiness carried over throughout this year's session as well.
To his credit, Steele resisted any urge to stoop to his critics' level. Instead he pushed for reforms to our correctional system, worked to make the House more open to the public, led the push for changes at the Department of Human Services, helped reduce the unfunded liabilities in state pension funds, and had a hand in getting significant workers' compensation reform and lawsuit reform bills approved.
Prior to his time as speaker, Steele tackled Medicaid reform and was co-chairman of a task force that worked on reducing the number of uninsured in Oklahoma.
“I love digging in and trying to figure out an issue that maybe has several layers to it ... and figuring out how to help people today and trying to change the trend, lay a foundation for the future,” Steele told The Oklahoman this week. “I was honored to work on them.”
As speaker, he said, he sought to make the House “a more members-centered model, to truly put the decision-making responsibility and the responsibility of researching and working on issues on the members and not so much on the staff and the lobbyists.” Even so, he said he is concerned about the sway held by lobbyists and special interests, which he fears is growing in part as a result of the state law that limits legislators to 12 years in office.
It was his own members, however, who shot down his effort to establish an ethics committee to oversee the conduct of House members. GOP members also soundly rejected a bond issue to pay for repairs to the state Capitol. “It became a situation where they would have been labeled at least by some as not being fiscally conservative if they voted for the bond issue,” he said. “They were afraid of being labeled a certain way instead of doing the right thing.”
Steele angered Senate Republicans and the governor's office when he refused to hear a tax-cut bill that had been agreed upon by all three parties. He did so after it was discovered that some Oklahomans would have seen their taxes increase. “I felt good about that,” he said. “Let's do it in such a way that's it's not going to increase taxes on anyone.”
His time as speaker “became ugly” at times. He strived to stay focused on the issues and keep from getting sidetracked. On the whole, “I think we were able to conduct ourselves and do the people's business in a way the people will be proud of,” Steele said. He is right to be proud of his work and his leadership. The Legislature could use more members like him.