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Speaker sees opportunity to redirect Legislature's focus in 2019

House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, and members of his caucus during a 2017 news conference. [Photo by Jim Beckel, The Oklahoman]

House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, and members of his caucus during a 2017 news conference. [Photo by Jim Beckel, The Oklahoman]

House Speaker Charles McCall believes the state Legislature will have the political and financial environment in 2019 to focus on practical policy that will benefit from a “solutions-oriented” crop of lawmakers.

“There is no question in my mind that you didn't pursue this job unless you wanted to come to the Legislature with some solutions,” said McCall, a Republican from Atoka, referring to a grueling election year that saw an increase in competitive races.

Even McCall — who had run unopposed the previous two cycles — faced primary and general election challengers, winning both handily.

A former bank president, McCall's election as House Speaker in 2016 was seen by some as imposing a dose of pragmatism and stability at the head of a Republican caucus that had been hijacked at times by ideological infighting.

But the last two years saw a budget shortfall, multiple special sessions, a teacher walkout and a widely supported tax increase package held up by a minority of lawmakers who took advantage of one of the nation's toughest hurdles for raising new revenue.

"I think he was the right speaker at that time in Oklahoma state history, especially last year for what was probably the toughest year we've had in the Legislature," said House Floor Leader Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City.

Next year, the Legislature is expected to have about $600 million more to spend, although sliding oil prices have raised some concern and agency requests have already surpassed the surplus.

"It's a good time to have a banker as House speaker since we are coming into some money," said Leslie Osborn, a former representative and current state Commissioner of Labor-elect. "This is when you have to make the tough decisions on how much to spend and how much to invest."

In 2017, Osborn was stripped of her position as chair of the House Appropriations and Budget Committee a day after she publicly disagreed with McCall over funding for the Department of Human Services.

Despite her removal as chair, Osborn said she has a good relationship with McCall and that he's typically not a person who acts impulsively.

“He's really pragmatic in that he doesn't make snap decisions and he usually works closely with his leadership team," Osborn said.

Osborn said the large size of the House Republican caucus makes it susceptible to fracturing, especially in “battles over social issues that can distract from more pressing issues.”

"That's a difficult path to navigate, but I think he does it as well as anyone could," Osborn said.

A new legislative session will bring with it new political battles, but Echols said 2019 will start with a spirit of cooperation.

"Look at McCall and (Senate President) Pro Tem Greg Treat and Gov.-elect Kevin Stitt — all three of them are reformers and I think there's a desire to move quickly on a lot of ideas," Echols said.

Stitt is seeking more control over agency leaders, while Treat, R-Oklahoma City, has proposed the creation of a new government spending oversight agency.

"These are ideas that make sense to me and most Oklahomans," McCall said.

"There was a lot of energy exhausted on the budget (last year), but I think we have an opportunity to redirect that next year to focus on some of the issues we haven't been able to get to."

Ben Felder

Ben Felder is an investigative reporter for The Oklahoman. A native of Kansas City, Ben has lived in Oklahoma City since 2010 and covered politics, education and local government for the Oklahoma Gazette before joining The Oklahoman in 2016.... Read more ›