Covid-19 Impacts the 2020 Oklahoma Conservative Index
We base our ratings on ten key bills that were voted on by the legislators in the last legislative session. We explain the bills and publish how each legislator voted on each of the ten bills. As these legislators run for reelection, or perhaps for a higher office, you can evaluate if they deserve your vote. In the early years, the selection of the ten bills used to score the legislators were selected by our newspaper staff. But, in 2002, we broadened participation to include the membership of the Oklahoma Conservative Political Action Committee (OCPAC). I have been a member of this group since we were just a few conservatives who met for lunch. It evolved into a formal organization in 2000. We have been meeting each Wednesday for lunch for nearly three decades, missing only when Christmas came on a Wednesday. That is, until the coronavirus hit the state. With restaurant dining rooms closing as a result of the pandemic, the OCPAC lunch has been suspended “indefinitely” since the middle of March.
Fortunately, Gov. Stitt has announced a 3 Phase Plan to begin reopening Oklahoma and moving toward normalcy. Starting on May 1, restaurant dining rooms can reopen statewide if they adhere to strict social distancing and sanitation protocols. While restaurant dining rooms may gradually reopen their doors, they will do so at a reduced capacity. It is not clear how, or if, they will be able to serve groups. They may have to wait until later when details are unveiled in Phase 3, which will start on June 1. But, the governor has cautioned that we will not move to each subsequent phase until the data tells us it is safe to do so. So, it is not clear at this time when a suitable venue might be available to accommodate the OCPAC meetings.
Now, how does this impact creating the Oklahoma Conservative Index? Let me explain the process that we have used since 2002. At the end of the legislative session (this year it is scheduled to end on May 29), we ask conservative legislators to submit a list of suggested bills to be considered for the ratings. While we maintain our own list as the session progresses, we always discover bills on the submitted lists that received no notoriety in the media, but that are important votes to be considered. After merging the lists from legislators with our own, we study the bills and verify that the legislation is a true conservative versus liberal issue. Often there are multiple bills involving the same subject, and we narrow those down to the most important ones.
We usually end up with over 20 bills that are presented to OCPAC members at two consecutive lunch meetings. The first meeting involves discussion of the merits of the bills presented, with legislators invited to participate in that discussion. The purpose of the meeting is to verify that the bills being considered merit inclusion in the ratings if selected. Some of the bills being considered are dropped from consideration as a result of the information discussed. The second meeting is devoted to discussion about which are the best bills to include, and ends with the vote by OCPAC members. Once the final list of ten bills has been selected, the staff of the Oklahoma Constitution compiles the scores and prepares the Oklahoma Conservative Index for publication. This process normally requires six weeks following adjournment of the Legislature.
In election years before 2012, our summer edition was in circulation before the Primary Elections. However, due to changes in election dates that took place beginning in 2012, that has not been possible, at least not from our printed edition. Legislation which passed the Oklahoma Legislature in 2011 shifted several election dates in order to comply with provisions of the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act passed by Congress in 2009. The federal bill required states to provide absentee ballots to military and other overseas voters 45 days before an election. Shifting the dates of the candidate filing period and the elections provided the necessary time to prepare absentee ballots and send them to overseas voters. The deadline to file for office in 2020 was April 8-10, over one month earlier than in elections prior to 2012. Oklahoma’s Primary Election date will be the last Tuesday in June, instead of the last week in July. For the 2020 election, the date will be June 30. For those seats in which no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the Runoff Primary Election will be held on the last Tuesday of August, instead of the first Tuesday in September. The date for 2020 will be August 25. The General Election was not affected and in 2020 will be November 3.
It is not possible to prepare the Conservative Index in time for our spring edition (the one you are currently reading) since the Legislature is not required to complete their session until the end of May. In 2012, and the subsequent election years, we have compressed the schedule in order to score the legislators and post the scores on our website prior to the Primary Election. This is to allow dissemination of the scores for consideration by voters prior to the Primary Election. This is important information concerning legislators running for reelection who are being opposed in the primary election, or those who may be running for higher office. The Conservative Index is then included in our summer printed edition as it has every summer since 1979.
If this were not an election year, we would have more time to complete the process, and it would be more likely that the weekly OCPAC meetings will resume in time to prepare the Conservative Index for the summer printed edition. But, with this being an election year, if we are going to complete the process and have it posted on our website before the Primary Election on June 30, we may need to use an alternative process. This might involve using a committee of OCPAC members which can meet in a compliant setting, or perhaps returning to our newspaper staff selecting the bills. Or, perhaps we don’t get it out before the Primary Election. Another impact of the pandemic, is that fewer candidates filed for office this year, and therefore there are fewer primary elections. There are only 21 legislative races where there will be a primary election, and not all of those involve an incumbent legislator. So, not having it done before the Primary Election is less critical than in prior years.
Another impact of the coronavirus pandemic is that it resulted in the Legislature not conducting business for over six weeks, and probably will result in fewer bills making their way through both chambers before the Legislature adjourns at the end of May. If you read our article on legislation contained in this edition, you may notice that most bills were passed in one chamber and have been sent to the other chamber for consideration. In normal years, the vote in the second chamber would have already occurred by this time, or the bill would be dead for the session. Since they have not been in session during most of the pandemic, the deadline was suspended, and bills can still be voted on right up until the day of adjournment. However, with so many bills and so little time, it is doubtful that very many bills will survive the session.
In previous years, we have mostly included bills that received votes in both legislative chambers. That is our preference, so that members of the House and the Senate are rated based on their votes on the same bills. Occasionally, we do pair an important bill voted on in only one chamber, and try to match it to a similar bill in the other chamber. It is a common practice for the same bill to be introduced in both chambers in the hope that one will make it through both chambers. But often, neither bill gets a vote in the other chamber. So, don’t be surprised to find greater use of pairing of House and Senate versions of bills on this year’s Conservative Index.
As we all know by now, predicting what will happen in the future with this pandemic is not an easy task. Please check our website before the Primary Election to see if the 2020 Conservative Index is posted, or to get updates on the status. If you sign up for our Twitter feed, we will send out a notice when it has been posted. In the meantime, the ratings for recent years are also available on our website: www.oklahomaconstitution.com
Ron McWhirter is one of the founders of the Oklahoma Constitution newspaper and serves as the General Manager. He may be contacted at the newspaper email: firstname.lastname@example.org