Pragmatism

 

By Andrew Tevington
Attorney at Law
Former Chief of Staff and General Counsel to Gov. Henry Bellmon

 

     Thirty years ago this legislative session, the Oklahoma Legislature and Gov. Henry Bellmon faced about a $350 million budget shortfall. In today’s dollars that’s more than $700 million, somewhat less than this session’s $800 million-plus deficiency.

     Bellmon and the Legislature overcame that shortage and passed financial measures that created the first-ever deposits into the constitutional Rainy Day Fund. How did they do it, and what can today’s Legislature and Gov. Mary Fallin learn from this history?

     To begin, you have to understand Bellmon, father of the Oklahoma Republican Party, first elected GOP governor for the state, first Republican re-elected to statewide office when he served two terms in the U.S. Senate.

     Bellmon was a teenager during the Great Depression. His family’s Noble County farm was somewhat affected by the Dust Bowl, but not to the extent seen in the Oklahoma Panhandle. Money was scarce. Rain for crops and pasture was scarcer. As the oldest son, Bellmon was tasked with hunting to get meat on the table to feed a blended family of 15 people.

     Raised in by a religious mother, he had a highly developed sense of fair play and what was right and what was wrong. He had not only a religion but an ideology he lived by. While he saw hunting as a part of his response to the biblical admonition to “subdue the earth,” he also thought hunting had to be conducted fairly. His problem was he had limited ammunition and lots of mouths to feed.

     In later years he would speak with a sense of embarrassment about going to local ponds and duck-feeding areas, where he would lie on a rise with his rifle aimed so he could be assured he would hit two and hopefully three sitting ducks at a time.

     “It wasn’t very sporting to shoot sitting ducks and shoot as many as I could with one shot, but it had to be done. There were people to feed,” he said as a senior adult.

     It was a pragmatic decision, and it was in the tradition of American Pragmatism, which until the last decade of the 20th Century was the defining characteristic of U.S. business, politics, and government—life in general.

     Bellmon believed government should be limited. It should do those things it was best at, and it should “get out of the way” of the private sector, as long as the private sector acted fairly. He was not, however, an ideologue. American Pragmatism directed him to do what was necessary to ensure government services were provided equitably.

     In 1987, a small number of ideologues served in the Oklahoma Legislature. Mostly, they leaned to Libertarianism and were intent on destroying as much of government as possible. They were distinctly a minority and they were mostly Republican.

     Republicans had earned enough seats in the Oklahoma Senate to control the emergency clause, the legislative provision which makes bills effective immediately rather than waiting 90 days after passage. The absence of an emergency clause meant a bill could not take effect until September, after the beginning of the fiscal year in July.

     Bellmon chose to work with Democrats, who he knew would support revenue measures needed to keep state government open. He also worked hard with what he termed “reasonable Republicans” in the Senate, in an attempt to secure the emergency clause in that chamber.

     To get the necessary votes, he did something he hated. He allowed House and Senate leaders to “buy” votes with promises of special projects in recalcitrant legislators’ districts. Mostly these were festivals and powwows intended to boost small town economies. In 1988, he put an end to such things with vetoes and an executive order forbidding executive branch employees from acquiescing to “back of the napkin” project lists handed to them surreptitiously by legislators.

     Despite these efforts, the budget talks came crashing down the last week when Speaker Jim Barker literally had a screaming fit in the governor’s office during negotiations. He wasn’t going any further. Senate Republicans who indicated they were willing to pass the emergency weren’t willing to do so without an additional provision.

     The meeting broke up, with Barker still yelling as he left the office.

     Fifteen minutes later, another pragmatist came to the governor’s office and asked to speak with Bellmon. It was Rep. Steve Lewis, a democrat from Shawnee. He asked Bellmon to work with him to find a way around the impasse. They put their heads together and came up with a proposed solution. Lewis left to try to sell it to the Speaker.  Bellmon went to the Senate Republicans.

     What Lewis said to Barker is unknown. What Bellmon said to the Senate Republicans included the threat of a special session, keeping them away from their businesses and families, if this deal didn’t pass.

      A day later all sides agreed although they refused to meet face-to-face. The budget was passed with what was then the largest nominal tax increase in Oklahoma history.

     The fact is Lewis didn’t really like the deal. Bellmon didn’t really like the deal. Barker didn’t like it. Senate Republicans didn’t like it. But it was the deal that could be done. Ideologues hated it and voted against. They lost. The state won.

     In the following legislative sessions, Bellmon and Lewis worked to improve Oklahoma education. It was not always the friendliest working group, but it was a pragmatic one.