general elections
The sun sets on the Oklahoma Capitol Friday, Sept. 14, 2018. (Ben White)

Even if no incumbents lose their November general elections, the 57th Oklahoma Legislature will feature a large freshman class of 44 new members in the House of Representatives and 12 in the State Senate.

At a minimum, then, 43 percent and 25 percent of members will be new in each chamber, respectively.

But numerous other legislative seats are up in the air for the Nov. 6 election.

In an interview with NonDoc, House Democratic Minority Leader Steve Kouplen (D-Beggs) expressed concern about the influx of new lawmakers in the House, though he hopes the numbers will increase through the victory of Democrats defeating incumbent Republicans.

“I think there are going to be a host of challenges when you consider nearly half of the body will turn over,” Kouplen said. “And even the ones left (…) most of them are (in their) second term or only third term. With those in the mix there’s a bunch of new blood.”

Thirty-nine House members have been elected since 2016 and have two or fewer sessions of experience. Three of these members lost to primary challengers and four did not run for re-election, meaning the 2019 session will be the second or third term for 32 lawmakers.

Term limits are forcing out 12 House members. Four more-senior GOP House members lost in the June 26 primary election and five lost in the Aug. 28 primary-runoffs, contributing to the 44 guaranteed new members. All told, at least 76 House members will have two or fewer years of experience entering the 2019 session.

Half of the 24 Senate districts up for election in 2018 have no incumbent due to term limits, two vacant seats and two Senators seeking higher office. Sen. Ervin Yen (R-OKC) lost in the June 26 primary to Joe Howell.

Only even-numbered Senate districts are up for re-election in 2018. The odd-numbered districts will come up for election in 2020.

“This is almost unprecedented,” said Keith Gaddie, a political science professor at the University of Oklahoma.

In an interview, Gaddie said there would likely be no drop in next session’s productivity, but that may not be what should concern voters.

“The career staff in the chamber will at least keep the train running,” Gaddie said. “You’ve got really good leadership from both parties on both sides.”

“The big thing it does is that these [new lawmakers] are going to be looking for cues on how to vote and looking for information,” Gaddie said. “This really makes lobbyists, career staff (have influence). It shifts the power even further away from the Legislature. (…) So the power is vested in people who are not electorally accountable.”

House Assistant Majority Whip Rep. John Pfeiffer (R-Orlando) said the influx of new House members will be an issue to which GOP House leadership will pay attention.

“It’s an issue we’re already working on trying to address,” Pfeiffer said. “The challenges are a lot of these people don’t understand the legislative process, and it’s not anybody’s fault. Nobody does until you get in there and start doing it.”

Pfeiffer said House leadership is already getting a plan together that will involve more attention to freshman lawmaker orientation. Typically, new Republican and Democratic members sit down with a more senior lawmaker who introduces the support members  including research staff, legal staff and the parliamentarian, who serves as an expert on rules and procedures.

“We’re still in the early stages of figuring out how to do it,” Pfeiffer said. “Because of the sheer number, maybe we break them into smaller groups, maybe we have more one-on-one time, maybe we bring in some previous members to say, ‘Here’s how I did it.'”

Both Gaddie and Kouplen expressed concern that, with the new members, it will be harder to find legislators to fill chairmanships.

“It’s going to be a real interesting endeavor, to say the least,” Kouplen said. “I think that there’s going to be challenges that have never been encountered before.”

Pfeiffer did address some possible benefits of such a large freshman class. To him, it presents an opportunity for change.

“The one good thing is fresh people always bring fresh ideas and new perspectives on issues,” Pfeiffer said. “And I think having that many different ways of looking at these problems we face is going to be a huge asset to the state moving forward.”

Both parties look ahead to November

While having a large freshman class is already inevitable, there are still 73 House races and 19 Senate races to be decided in November. Looking toward those elections, Kouplen said education, health care and public safety are “main priorities” for Democrats.

“I think we need to restore some of the revenue measures that we’ve cut in the past in the state and invest in ourselves,” Kouplen said. “There’s no free lunch.”

Kouplen pointed to Tulsa’s Vision Projects and Oklahoma City’s MAPS projects as evidence that Oklahoma communities are ready to invest in themselves.

“The rural infrastructure in this state needs assistance,” said Kouplen, whose eastern Oklahoma district runs from northwest Okmulgee down through Okemah and Holdenville. “We need to return funding that helps those rural counties provide transportation needs to their communities, and that’s kind of been what we’ve promoted.”

Kouplen said there are not enough young people becoming teachers and that one pay increase was not going to be a sufficient fix. Pfeiffer echoed his thoughts.

“You can’t focus on the leaky plumbing in your house until you put out the fire,” Pfeiffer said. “We put out the fire. We’re in a much, much better place financially as a state. Now we’ve got to go in and fix the leaky pipes.”

With a more secure funding situation, Pfeiffer said the Republican Party now would like to give the next governor more hiring and firing power over agency directors. He also said Republicans hope to audit state agencies more often and find additional money for education.

“That’s the real, kind of clear message going into November,” Pfeiffer said. “You want people with new ideas who say we are willing to step up and lead and willing to make tough decisions. Now that we’re in a better place financially, how do we continue to find money for education? Because as the majority party that’s what we did.”