Commentary: A Review of Okla. Governor Brad Henry's First Year in Office

By Pitts, William O. | THE JOURNAL RECORD, December 8, 2003 | Go to article overview

Commentary: A Review of Okla. Governor Brad Henry's First Year in Office


Pitts, William O., THE JOURNAL RECORD


What was not done during Gov. Brad Henry's first year in office may be as noteworthy as what he did. It would be incorrect to say his first year was uneventful, even if it lacked the spark of partisan rancor.

There were some controversial issues but his first legislative session went reasonably smooth, and the governor was able to accomplish some of the goals he outlined in his gubernatorial campaign.

Most notable of these was getting the Legislature to submit to a vote of the people a statewide lottery with the proceeds dedicated to education. This was an early fight that was not easily won.

While few legislators objected to lottery revenues going to education, there was serious opposition from those morally opposed to gambling or perceiving their constituents to be. It also came from other gambling interests in the state.

The toughest fight came in the House, where the bill failed initially but finally passed by a narrow three-vote margin. There was less opposition in the Senate.

Basically, the governor countered the moral question by presenting the issue as giving the people an opportunity to vote on it. That swayed enough votes to get it passed.

Initially the plan was to put the question on the ballot last summer at a special election. That idea was dropped when it seemed Henry could not secure the necessary two-thirds majority vote to do it. It will be voted on next November.

Some wondered if this was only a change in strategy on the governor's part. A few Republicans suggested he actually could have gotten the two-thirds vote if he had tried.

It was a major victory for the governor. He had set this issue as his paramount goal, but there are those who believe his win was more the work of the Democrat leaders in the House and Senate than through his direct efforts.

Regardless it came early enough in the session to boost his stature with the Legislature. That was important coming in his first year, after winning the gubernatorial election by only 6,000 votes over Republican Steven Largent. He only received a 43 percent plurality, which scarcely could be considered a mandate from the people.

To try to run this measure first might seem like a bold move, but in reality, independent candidate Gary Richardson got 14 percent of the vote and he too proposed a lottery. It seemed clear at the time a majority of voters supported it.

Henry is not the only recent governor to be elected with less than a majority of the votes cast. In his first election, former Gov. Frank Keating got 46 percent of the vote, but took a much more aggressive approach in his first year. In each case independent candidates kept them from getting a majority.

Out of sight, out of mind

Henry's most notable achievement came in writing the state budget. By presenting it with bipartisan support the governor was able to achieve many of its features. At the end much of it as written contained several aspects of one submitted by Senate Republicans.

Unfortunately the final product relied heavily on temporary or one-time money transfers and borrowing to make it balance. It succeeded in leaving education with a slight increase and health care funded without a further cut. It did not, however, satisfy common school education supporters, not that much ever does. …

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