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Zack Taylor
Rep. Zack Taylor (R-Seminole) talks with visitors outside the House chamber Thursday, May 18, 2017, at the Oklahoma State Capitol. (William W. Savage III)

When Rep. Zack Taylor was knocking doors for a special House District 28 election in Seminole County, he knew there was a chance of being sworn in for the end of the 2017 legislative session, assuming he won.

What he didn’t know is that his first vote would be on a bill raising about $350 million in tax revenue.

“I expected the budget negotiations likely to be over by then,” Taylor (R-Seminole) said Thursday morning outside the House chamber. “I’ve been told that was the second-largest proposed tax increase since the 1980s.”

Taylor, who defeated Democratic opponent Steve Barnes by about 100 votes May 9 said Capitol veterans have told him they’ve never heard of a new member casting his or her first vote on such a big revenue measure.

“As far as we know, it hasn’t happened (before),” said Taylor, who was sworn in about three hours before the vote. “That evening, it was just a whirlwind. I told [Speaker Charles McCall] that I might be willing to compromise if I happened to be the swing vote, but it became obvious that I wasn’t the swing vote, so it wasn’t really a wise thing for me to vote for it when I didn’t really know what all was in there.”

The bill combined a cigarette tax designated for numerous health programs, a fuel tax with complex dedication to the road funding formula and a trimming of the state’s gross production tax incentive on newly drilled oil and gas wells.

House Floor Leader Jon Echols (R-OKC) said Taylor has “done a great job” digging in, learning about the issues and communicating with leadership.

“It was rough,” Echols said of the revenue measure that ultimately qualified for ballot consideration but failed to receive a supermajority vote to be immediately implemented. “I cannot imagine a harder first vote. I did tell him, ‘It’ll be easier from here.’”

House District 28 opened up near the start of 2017 when former Rep. Tom Newell resigned to pursue private opportunities, despite having run for re-election in November.

Echols said Taylor has served his district professionally in his first 48 hours.

“I think Rep. Taylor is going to be a wonderful member. I’ve been very impressed with him,” Echols said. “He took a deliberative process. He came in early to learn about the bill. A lot of members wouldn’t have done that. Before he was even elected, he spoke with the Speaker. He paid attention during debate. He talked to his whip before he voted to make sure everybody kind of knew where he was.”

Rep. Jason Dunnington (D-OKC) said Taylor seemed like a nice guy, and he offered examples of the bureaucratic challenges facing a new lawmaker.

“Just to get the whole pace of what goes on up here — what it means that it’s second reading instead of fourth reading,” Dunnington said. “Or if you’re suspending a rule, or if you’re actually voting on a final bill, or if you’re voting on an emergency on a bill. I mean, there are so many moving pieces that. If you’re not doing it every day, it’s hard to pick up. To be asked to do that right off the bat, it’s a really difficult place.”

He said Taylor’s first vote put the new lawmaker in a tough position.

“For most of us who come in, our first vote is on some repeal of some policy that happened 80 years ago, and his very first vote is on a massive tax increase on a budget deal,” Dunnington said. “It was a really difficult position to be in as a brand new member of the Legislature.”

‘They want us to get out of the gridlock’

Taylor said his now-constituents told him on the campaign trail that they want the Legislature to find a way forward.

“They want us to get out of the gridlock, for sure. They want us to fund core services. Basically everybody on both sides could agree with that,” Taylor said. “Now, everybody’s not in agreement how to do that, just like here (at the Capitol). So there’s going to be a lot of hard choices to make, no doubt. It’s evident at this point there’s going to have to be a balance of cuts and maybe limited revenue measures.”

Taylor, who grew up in the Seminole area from the third grade on, runs an oil and gas operation with his father. With gross production taxes being key to ongoing budget negotiations, he has a leg up in understanding the issue. But he’s not sure what will ultimately happen.

“I don’t know where we’re going to go there,” he said. “I know what the people in my district have voiced, but I don’t know what direction we’re going to go there.”

Most of those district voices are “pushing for some kind of reform” of GPT rates, Taylor said.

“I think everybody just wants to see us do better on core services,” he said. “That’s perceived to make things better. Even though that may not be a big revenue-raising measure the first year, it’s perceived that way.”

Some levity at the new guy’s expense

On Tuesday evening, as Taylor prepared to get his feet wet with the big cigarette, fuel and GPT modification vote, he found some of his new colleagues wanting to have a little fun at his expense.

“We’ve had a few jokes and all that,” Taylor said.

One of those jokes was the idea of Rep. Greg Babinec (R-Cushing).

“I know that Floor Leader Echols has a landline phone in his desk, so I went over to his desk, picked the phone up and acted like I was talking on it,” Babinec said Thursday. “I looked back at Zack and got his attention. When he came over, I had my hand over the mouthpiece, and I said, ‘Hey, the phone is for you, it’s the governor. I think she wants to congratulate you on being sworn in tonight.’ He was like, ‘Oh! Hello? Hello?’ Then he quickly realized he’d been pranked because several of us were laughing. So he came over and said, ‘You’re kind of a trickster, aren’t you?’”

Babinec, a freshman lawmaker himself, offered praise of Taylor’s demeanor, intelligence and ability to handle the difficult situation.

“It’s hard enough to come in here your first year at the start. There’s not a lot of training classes, and you’ve kind of got to figure it out on your own,” Babinec said. “So to come in here near the end and try to figure it out, I can’t imagine how hard that is. But he’s a sharp guy, and I’m sure he’ll do well and figure it out quickly.”

Thursday, Taylor said that was already happening.

“Today is the first day that I feel more relaxed and am starting to get into a groove,” Taylor said. “I’m feeling a lot better.”

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William W. Savage III holds a journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma. He covered two sessions of the Oklahoma Legislature for eCapitol.net before working in health care for six years. He is a nationally certified Mental Health First Aid instructor.