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New challenges, including a budget surplus, face the 2019 Legislature

Several new faces will be on hand for the start of the legislative session on Monday. A new challenge faces lawmakers new and old — a budget surplus. [The Oklahoman Archives]

Several new faces will be on hand for the start of the legislative session on Monday. A new challenge faces lawmakers new and old — a budget surplus. [The Oklahoman Archives]

State lawmakers expect a calmer legislative session than those of the last few years, especially with the absence of budget shortfalls, re-election bids and a teacher walkout that pitted a frustrated public against its elected officials.

Then again, having a budget surplus presents its own set of challenges.

"Legislators who came before me said it was always harder in a surplus year because everyone is fighting over a finite amount of additional money," said Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City. "But I welcome that challenge and want to give a surplus a shot for a change.”

Many lawmakers expect around $200 million in new funding that could be apportioned. That's not nearly enough to cover the funding requests from agencies that have been cut for several years.

Republicans remain in control of the Legislature — a 76 to 25 majority in the House, and a 39 to 9 majority in the Senate — and the governor's office.

But with a new governor and more than one-third of lawmakers entering their first session, there are a lot of unknowns.

"With so many new Republican freshmen, there is this feeling that the freshman class is more moderate, and I think that they are," said House Minority Leader Emily Virgin.

Virgin, D-Norman, said the new crop of lawmakers, including several who beat anti-tax incumbents, could give the Legislature a new feel, even though the balance of power between the parties did not change.

House Speaker Charles McCall isn't completely on board with the moderate label.

"I think 'moderate' is not necessarily a great term to use to characterize or identify change to the caucus," said McCall, R-Atoka. "But I think this caucus will definitely be solution-oriented."

McCall said the biggest change this year is not necessarily in the lawmakers but the circumstances they face.

Rather than fighting over tax hikes, McCall and Treat said they will be focused on creating a budget review office for the Legislature, granting the governor more authority over agency directors and funding criminal justice reform measures that reduce the number of people in Oklahoma prisons.

On issues of expanded gun rights and tighter abortion restrictions, Treat said his caucus remained strongly conservative on those issues.

"I don't think ideologically there has been a big shift in the Senate," Treat said.

Despite their small numbers, Democrats plan to advocate for tax increases for education and Medicaid expansion, issues that speak to two of the most challenging issues facing the state.

After years in which Republicans were reluctant even to utter the phrase “Medicaid expansion,” leaders of the majority party have signaled a willingness at least to talk about it.

Gov. Kevin Stitt has said he is against a clean expansion of Medicaid and that he won't even consider it until he gets the power to hire and fire the director of the Health Care Authority, which oversees the state's Medicaid program, SoonerCare.

"I'm going to be very careful to make sure I don't put Oklahoma in a tough situation in 10 years or 5 years or 20 years, where we're stuck ... holding a billion-dollar price tag," Stitt said last week.

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 ›