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T


erry Matlock discovered his future when he was 14 years old. During his formative teenage years, Matlock paged in back-to-back sessions of the Oklahoma Legislature. The young Matlock took his work seriously. He was studious and diligent—even when it came to


take break time. While most of the pages lounged, Matlock quietly took his place in the gallery and watched the lawmakers. In these introspective mo- ments, he fell in love with the process of making laws. “The fi rst time I saw them working I was intrigued,” he said. “I sat there and I thought ‘I want to do this with my life.’ They were trying to make things better for people and our state. It became my focus.” In Matlock’s senior yearbook, he even wrote “speaker pro tempore” under future occupation. Some might have scoffed at the notion but years later Matlock fulfi lled his dream. He not only served in the Oklahoma Legislature, representing District 1, McCurtain and Le Flore counties from 1990 to 2002, but he did indeed become speaker pro tempore for the Democratic Party. Today, Matlock, 51, serves as manager of Choctaw Electric Cooperative and chairman of the Oklahoma Association of Electric Cooperatives’ (OAEC) leg- islative committee. He is one of three experts Oklahoma Living contacted to help provide co-op members with a primer about their state government as it nears the beginning of its next session. “People must understand their government because it impacts every facet of their lives,” Matlock said. “That includes keeping electricity affordable and reli- able for all our members.” Matlock, along with Jimmy Taylor, president of Northfork Electric


Cooperative’s Board of Directors and vice president of the OAEC Board of Directors, and Kenny Sparks, who represents OAEC’s interests at the state level and with the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, answered some of the fun- damental questions about Oklahoma’s legislative processes: “Why is it so hard to make a law?”; “How can I get involved?”; “How do I best interact with my representative?”.


Before they can answer these questions, they started with the fundamentals.


The ABCs of Oklahoma lawmaking Oklahoma will convene its 54th Legislature, second session in February 2014.


While this is the 108th year for the Legislature, Oklahoma runs two-year ses- sions. For example, the 54th Legislature’s fi rst session was in 2013, and now its second session will be this year. The session, which will bring in 101 House members and 48 Senators, will begin the fi rst Monday in February and adjourn the last Friday of May. For those who view 17 weeks of work as more of a part-time job, they’re right. “Oklahoma Senate seats and House of Representative seats are meant to be part-time positions,” Matlock said. “Additionally we have a system that pre- vents career politicians. Back in 2004, the citizens of Oklahoma created term limits. You can now only serve 12 years in the House and Senate.” Independent of the length of the session or the tenure of the legislator,


Oklahoma’s legislative branch conducts a tremendous amount of work. During the spring, between 2,500 and 3,000 bills will enter an admittedly complicated process of vetting and scrutiny. To understand the bill creation procedure, imagine an almost endless circle of hot potato (see graphic on Page 9) where a bill is passed back and forth between the House and the Senate. Sparks explained the process like this: “To begin, a bill needs an author and sponsor in both the House and the Senate. Then it goes to the correct com- mittee where it can be reviewed, tweaked and then voted on. If it is affi rmatively


Co-op Legislative Experts: Terry Matlock,


Choctaw Electric Cooperative Manager and former Oklahoma House of Representatives Speaker Pro Tempore


Jimmy Taylor,


President of Northfork Electric Cooperative Board of Directors and Vice President of the OAEC Board of Directors


Kenny Sparks,


Director of Legislative & Regulatory Affairs, OAEC


voted out of committee, it is sent to fl oor of the originating body. For our example, we’ll say our bill begins in the House. If it passes there it is sent to the Senate side, where it is assigned to a committee in the Senate. Again it can be reviewed and changed before it is voted on. If it is voted out of that com- mittee, then the Senate votes on it and sends it back to the originating body, the House, for consideration again. This will be its fourth or fi fth reading.” Confused? That’s fair. The process is designed to make sure only the best bills survive. A bill can be killed at any level, by any committee and voted down in either governing body. If a bill manages to survive the gauntlet, the governor can still veto it. Some bills never enter the process at all. More than 1,000 of the current slate of proposed laws are carried over from the previous session. Most will never even be scheduled for a vote. In the end, only about 750 will actually ever receive consideration. “This process is deliberate,” Sparks said. “It’s very treacherous. It’s a mine-


fi eld. Controversial bills introduced the fi rst day are usually not done until the last two weeks.”


If this legislative ping-pong sounds excessive, Matlock assured co-op mem- bers that it is necessary. “While it is diffi cult to make a law, it is more diffi cult to undo a law,” he


said. “The process that is there is established to give everyone an opportunity to have their viewpoint spoken, and have input. You may see a bill four, fi ve or six times throughout the session. That’s a good thing. People should want their lawmakers aware of how a bill is changing.” As Taylor pointed out, the round robin system is intentional. “Our forefathers didn’t want it simple for us to make laws, so they put in this system of checks and balances to prevent knee-jerk reactions. Laws worth their merit will get there eventually.”


Rural vs. Urban


Some co-op members feel the legislative process is beyond their reach, but all three experts agreed that understanding how their laws are made and who is making them are vital to keeping the 30 Oklahoma electric co-ops thriving. With the continued shift from rural to urban centers, the legislative process will become even more critical. Historically, Oklahoma is a rural state with rural legislatures. As the population shifts, district lines are redrawn every 10 years. Inevitably, there are more legislatures coming from urban areas and fewer from rural. “Oklahoma is changing,” Sparks said. “The last couple of election cycles have resulted in a decline of legislators from rural areas. The potential of legislatures not to have rural roots is more real than ever.” Sparks explained that this is not necessarily a negative concept except that


“often times what is good for rural is not good for urban, and vice versa. Many people want to see money spent where the majority of the population lives.” Sparks used bridges as an example. People in urban areas want to know why their tax dollars should be spent on a country bridge when overpasses need to be fi xed in the city. “In this particular example, we have to remember that the rural communities


feed our urban centers and our country,” Sparks said. “How do you get the crops and products in without good roads and bridges? The cost of all of those products will ultimately go up. Bottom line: we are all interconnected.” The same inherent confl ict can be applied to laws regarding electricity.


Without understanding the co-ops, lawmakers could have a profound effect on the affordability and reliability of electricity to rural centers.


FEBRUARY 2014


7


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