A citizen’s guide to the Oklahoma Legislature
June 25, 2021
Rick Farmer, Ph.D.
Few of us have thought much about how the Legislature works since our 9th-grade civics class or maybe a freshman college government course, so most of us are a little rusty on the process. A little refresher will help you be more effective in the policymaking world. Hopefully, this article will help you get started by providing a summary of the legislative process and some resources for further review. In addition to the brief narrative, I’ve included a short glossary of terms and an annotated bibliography.
Oklahoma’s government is structured like the US government. There are three branches: legislative, executive, and judicial. The legislative branch is divided into two chambers that function independently. For a proposal to become law it must pass both legislative chambers and be signed by the governor.
The Oklahoma House has 101 members, elected to 2-year terms. The Senate has 48 members, elected to 4-year terms. Term limits restrict legislators to no more than 12 years of total combined service.
All legislative bills must be introduced by a member of the chamber. House bills must have a House author. Senate bills must have a Senate author. When officially introduced, the bill is said to be “1st read.” Generally, the next day bills are “2nd read” and assigned to committee. If a majority of the committee members vote for it, the bill proceeds to the floor for “3rd reading” and final passage. If a majority of chamber members vote for it, the bill moves to the other chamber and starts the process over. If the second chamber passes the bill with no change it moves to the governor for approval. If the second chamber makes any changes before passing the bill, then the bill returns to the original chamber to consider the amendments and a possible conference committee.
This all may seem complicated and slow, but it ensures that decisions are deliberative, and it protects the public from rash actions by lawmakers.
Only about 20 percent of legislative proposals become law, and many of those are budget bills. The batting average for substantive policy ideas is far lower. There are many gatekeepers who have the ability to screen legislation. The most common reason a bill dies is that a gatekeeper refuses to schedule it for a hearing.
It all starts with the legislative leadership. Politics is a team sport. After the election, each party caucuses and chooses a leader. On the first day of the legislative session in each respective chamber, the majority party uses its power to formally elect the leaders: the Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate. The Speaker and the Pro Temp have the power to appoint a floor leader, name committees, appoint committee chairmen, and assign bills to committee. Committee chairmen have the discretion to place a bill on the committee agenda or let it die in committee. The floor leader also has the power to place bills on the floor agenda or leave them on the calendar. Thus, for a bill to pass it needs the support of the following:
Repeat in the other chamber
When a bill reaches the governor’s desk, he has three options. He can sign it, making it law. He can veto it, sending it back to the Legislature. Or, he can leave it lay. During the legislative session, if he leaves it lay for five days, it becomes law without his signature. After the session ends, holding a bill kills it.
The Oklahoma Legislature is a part-time legislature. Most members maintain outside jobs while serving. Some months of the legislative process are very busy. Others do not demand much time.
A series of deadlines provides structure to the legislative session. With a few exceptions, any bill that misses a deadline is dead for the year. The first deadline occurs at the end of November, right after the election. This is the bill request deadline—when the legislative staff is made aware of the need to draft a bill. A second deadline comes in January—when the language to be drafted needs to be submitted to staff. The deadline to introduce a bill is usually in late January, the week before the legislative session begins. This is something of a gearing-up phase for legislators.
Session officially begins the first Monday in February. Usually, somewhere around 2,500 to 3,000 bills are introduced. Committees have four weeks to consider those bills. This is a very busy time. Bills left in committee after the deadline are dead for the year.
The deadline for bills to pass off the chamber floor is two weeks later, or the sixth week of the legislative session. Any bills left on the floor calendar are dead for the year. This can be a pretty intense time, with long meetings lasting until late into the evening.
Less than 50 percent of the bills will make it across the rotunda to the other chamber. For the bills that do make it, the deadlines start anew. Committees have four weeks to consider the bills from the other chamber. Because the volume is lower, the intensity is lower. But, because these bills are nearing final passage, the importance of the work grows.
Bills that survive the second committee deadline have two weeks to clear the floor of the second chamber. Again, there is less intensity but greater importance.
Unamended bills will go directly from the floor to the governor. Most bills will return to the chamber of origin for the consideration of amendments. This may result in a conference process. There are deadlines for conference as well. The Legislature has about a month to complete this process. The state Constitution requires that the session end by the last Friday in May.
Additionally, the budget is never far from legislators’ minds. Serious negotiations occur in May. So, this can be a very intense time as well.
The Legislature has three types of staff: personal staff, central staff, and leadership staff. Most members of the House and Senate get one office assistant. Some House members share a single staffer. In the House they are called legislative assistants. In the Senate they are known as executive assistants. They function as administrative assistants for the members.
The House and the Senate each have a team of researchers, bill drafters, and budget analysts. These serve as central staff for all members. They also handle administrative duties for the committees. In addition, there is staff to handle day-to-day operations of each chamber. This central staff works hard to be seen as nonpartisan and they serve all of the members.
The Speaker and the Pro Temp each have a leadership staff. This is a team of policy advisors who help shape policy and messaging.
Administrative Rules, Executive Orders, and Attorney General Opinions
Public policy is made in a variety of ways. Generally, we think of the Legislature passing laws, but other actions can have the force of law. Sometimes the “law” you want to change is not a law at all.
In the process of implementing laws made by the Legislature, state agencies make rules. Anyone interacting with the agency must obey these rules or they could be fined. For example, anyone with a hunting license must follow the rules of the Wildlife Department.
The governor may issue an executive order that applies to state agencies. For example, he may order all agencies to create a website and allow for electronic submission of license applications.
An attorney general’s opinion also has the force of law. Once the opinion is issued it becomes the state’s official interpretation of the law until a court determines otherwise. Everyone is required to follow the AG’s interpretation until it is challenged in court or until the law is changed. Other agency directors may issue similar guidance, representing how they plan to enforce a rule or law.
One of the most contentious policy issues each year is the state budget. The Oklahoma state government spends about $20 billion per year on everything from highways to education to prisons. Most of this money is dedicated revenue, such as federal highway funds or hunting license fees. The Legislature allocates about $9 billion each year in general revenue to about 70 state agencies. The 10 largest agencies—common education, higher education, the Oklahoma Health Care Authority, etc.—get 90% of the money. The other 60-plus agencies receive relatively small appropriations.
Most agencies have three sources of funds. They have revolving funds. These are fees collected for the purpose of providing a service. For example, a licensing fee is to cover the cost of processing and issuing the license. Then, they have federal funds. These are usually matching dollars for specific projects. And, they have funds appropriated by the Legislature from general revenue.
Appropriations subcommittees in both chambers begin meeting in the fall before the legislative session starts. They ask each appropriated agency to provide a budget review and a budget request. With 70-plus agencies to review, these meetings continue through January. Some House and Senate subcommittees hold joint meetings to make it easier for the agencies to report.
Completing the budget requires passing several bills. The Oklahoma Constitution allows the Legislature to pass one General Appropriations (GA) bill. This bill allocates funds to each of the agencies. Several budget-limit bills are passed to direct how agencies spend their appropriation.
Substantive policy bills that affect spending are assigned to the subcommittees during the legislative session. Serious budget negotiations get under way between the House, Senate, and governor in May. Once an agreement is reached, the GA bill and the budget-limit bills are drafted and passed. This usually occurs in the last week of session.
The legislative process can take a lot of twists and turns. Sometimes the House or Senate parliamentarian has to sort it out. But the basic process is pretty straightforward. When examined at the 10,000-foot level, some general trends are apparent: gatekeepers matter, each year has a consistent rhythm, and the budget affects everything.
Below are a few terms to know and some additional resources that will help you become more familiar with the process and more effective in bringing about change. (For a more comprehensive glossary of legislative terms, see page 97 here.)
1st Reading. When a bill is officially introduced into the House or Senate.
2nd Reading. Usually when a bill is assigned to a committee.
3rd Reading. When a bill is brought to the floor for passage.
4th Reading. When a bill is brought to the floor for passage a second time (after a conference committee or amendments from the opposite chamber).
Conference Committee. If a bill passes each house of the Legislature with different wording, then a conference committee may be called to work out the final language.
Legislative Assistant. Most members of the House and Senate have a single administrative assistant. Some members share an assistant. In the House they are known as legislative assistants. In the Senate they are known as executive assistants.
Striking the Title. This is a parliamentary move designed to keep a bill alive through a deadline while working out the final provisions. The Oklahoma Constitution requires that all bills have a title, enacting clause, and language. By striking the title or the enacting clause the bill becomes unconstitutional, thus assuring members that the bill will be amended before final passage to the governor’s desk.
I’m Just a Bill. This children’s cartoon remains the best basic description of the legislative process.
Legislative Football. This article plots the progress of a bill on a football field. Beginning with the diagram on page 6, the narrative summarizes the legislative process in some detail.
Legislative Manual. This document is produced by the House staff as a textbook for new-member orientation. It is an excellent resource with significant detail.
Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture. This is a brief overview of the Oklahoma legislative process prior to Republican control in 2004.
The 2004 Partisan Transition. While the focus of this article is legislative term limits, it highlights many of the changes that took place just before and after the 2004 election.
ABC Book. This is a listing of all Oklahoma agencies, boards, and commissions.
Comprehensive Annual Financial Report. Each year the Oklahoma Office of Management & Enterprise Services produces a Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR). It breaks down how each agency spends its money and the total for all agencies.
Oklahoma Facts. The Senate staff produces this report on the state budget and other pertinent facts.
Oklahoma Budget Timeline. This article outlines the 22-month process required to draft Oklahoma’s state budget.
$2 Billion in State Savings Prudent. This article compares annual tax collections and rainy day fund balances.
Oklahoma Politics and Policies: Governing the Sooner State. This textbook by Morgan, England and Humphries was published in 1991. It is a useful overview of Oklahoma politics and government at the time.
Oklahoma Government and Politics: An Introduction. This collection of articles by Sharp, Hardt, Markwood, and Wood is updated every few years. Most of these authors are not conservative, but this is the most up-to-date textbook on Oklahoma government.
- The Oklahomans. Historian John Dwyer is scheduled to release Volume 2 of his history of Oklahoma in November 2021. Volume 2 will cover statehood to the present. It will be an excellent resource.