The president of the Oklahoma Oil and Gas Association got into a heated argument with a handful of legislators Tuesday evening at an Oklahoma City restaurant.
The dustup stemmed from lawmaker dissatisfaction with personal-attack ads run by OKOGA in print publications and on TV. An employee of Mahogany Prime Steakhouse in downtown OKC asked OKOGA president Chad Warmington and lawmakers to take their argument outside, according to people present.
“The group of representatives that was at that dinner is not the type that is going to get pushed around by lobbyists,” said Rep. Casey Murdock (R-Felt), who was in attendance. “We’ll listen to our constituents. They’re not going to bully us into changing our positions.”
Warmington did not respond to a call or texts seeking comment on the situation, but Donelle Harder, vice president of communications for OKOGA, did.
“It’s the end of session. It’s a very difficult time. All parties are feeling a lot of pressure, as you can imagine,” Harder said. “It was a spirited conversation. Nothing egregious happened. A lot of stories I’ve heard at the Capitol have some pretty fabricated details.”
‘Very emotional’ discussions on big topics
While Harder said someone called her during the altercation so she could listen on speaker phone, Rep. John Paul Jordan (R-Yukon) was in attendance.
“What happened is that a member received notification that an ad had been placed against him while having dinner with Warmington,” Jordan said. “The member, I think rightfully so, wanted to confront Mr. Warmington to ask him what was going on, especially on the question of ‘Where did you get this information?’ Warmington escalated the situation instead of keeping a level head, especially when you consider a member has now been put on point for something he either has or has not said.”
That member, according to multiple sources, was Rep. Chad Caldwell (R-Enid).
“I’m not really going to say anything one way or another about that,” said Caldwell, who did speak about the ongoing debates over oil and gas policy. “I would just say that there’s a lot of different opinions on the matter, and maybe everything is not always reported accurately.”
Harder said legislators and lobbyists alike “really invest” in issues, such as the industry’s effort to expand long-lateral drilling and some lawmakers’ attempts to increase state revenue by reducing oil and gas producers’ gross production tax break on the first 36 months of new wells.
“[These topics] become very emotional for us. Whether we want to or not, we invest in them. Legislators should be invested in the places that they’ve decided to take a stand on,” Harder said. “It was just about the fact that we were taking a more public stance on asking people to specifically call legislators to oppose a gross production tax increase.”
‘I would think it does backfire’
Jordan said the television and print advertisements running against specific members of his caucus seem politically problematic. The TV ad embedded above directs its criticism at House Appropriations and Budget Chairwoman Leslie Osborn (R-Tuttle).
“My take is that it’s never wise to do attack ads on pending legislation from any group. There are ways of getting your message across to the public when it comes to encouraging votes,” Jordan said. “At the same time, taking out an attack ad when there’s no record on a member as to where they will or will not vote is unwise policy.”
Lawmakers told NonDoc that SB 867 — the long-lateral drilling bill that has divided oil and gas groups — was pulled from consideration at Wednesday’s meeting of the House Joint Committee on Appropriations and Budget owing to Tuesday night’s kerfuffle.
“I would think it does backfire on them,” Jordan said. “From talking to some of the members of the OKOGA board, possibly the information they were presented by Warmington was not correct, and so Warmington possibly stepped out of bounds when it came to those ads.”
Jordan said two OKOGA board members were at the dinner and “were not happy with that.”
“They were there, and they were not condoning his actions. It was an outlier,” said Jordan, who has not seen any advertisements run against him personally. “Unfortunately, we have the potential for a bad actor who represents the industry hurting something that a lot of people worked really hard on moving forward.”
Besides Caldwell, Murdock and Jordan, multiple sources said Rep. Greg Babinec (R-Cushing) and Rep. Scooter Park (R-Devol) were in attendance. One other lawmaker may have been at the dinner, as well as other industry lobbyists.
Murdock said he disagrees with the nature of the OKOGA advertisements.
“A person last night said, ‘We have the right to defend our industry.’ Well they do,” Murdock said. “They have freedom of speech and the right to stand up and defend their industry. But when they go out personally and attack a representative personally, I think they overstep their bounds.”
Murdock said “of course” he is a pro-oil and gas lawmaker. He represents House District 61 in western Oklahoma and the panhandle, which could benefit from SB 867. He said an ad ran against him in a small rural newspaper in his district.
“If the ad would have said, contact your representative and let them know how you feel, that’s fair game,” Murdock said. “But when you’re calling out Joe Blow Representative and putting direct pressure on them, I think that’s overstepping bounds.”
‘Politics isn’t bean bags’
House Minority Leader Scott Inman (D-Del City) has been the main political proponent of modifying the gross production tax break. He said Wednesday that the attack ads and dinner dispute highlight how several GOP legislators have been elected in districts where Democrats don’t compete well, meaning they have not faced much criticism.
“Now that an industry that they have counted on for years is turning against them — because many of those Republicans are trying to do the right thing and raise the gross production tax — it has caused great consternation among the industry,” Inman said. “I’d say that some of the members appear to have a glass jaw. They forget that politics isn’t bean bags. But it also shows how contentious it is when normally good friends end up at each other’s throats.”
Jordan said the dinner “was not even about the gross production tax.”
“It was about long laterals. It was to explain parts of the bill to let them talk,” Jordan said. “Unfortunately, again, things get heated, a member confronts a lobbyist, and he got upset about it and began to really press the fight against a sitting member who just wanted information.”
Caldwell and others said those issues will remain at the forefront of discussion as session winds down and deals are struck.
“It’s a fluid discussion, and things have a way of evolving,” Caldwell said. “The conversation is ongoing, and it’s one of many things that are ongoing.”
Caldwell’s Twitter profile has not been ongoing in 2017, but his final two posts from 2016 were retweets of OKOGA messages. One criticized Inman for saying the industry has a low tax burden.
Harder said her organization used the advertisements to make sure their message on GPT and long-lateral drilling was being heard. She pointed to recent state revenue figures that show GPT as one of the only state revenues to be about 100 percent higher this year than last year.
“[A separate] bill is moving to close our rebates, and then all of a sudden the discussion ramps back up to change the gross-production rate,” Harder said. “All of that came so quickly with so little time that we needed to make sure that people understood where we stand as an industry.”