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Monday, May 27th, 2019Last Update: Tuesday, May 7th, 2019 11:03:32 AM

RINO Legislators Launch Think Tank

By: Constitution Staff

Three Republican state senators who will be leaving the Legislature are launching a think tank that they claim will promote conservative fiscal policies. However, the three lawmakers are among those who are labeled as RINOs (Republicans In Name Only) who tend to vote on the moderate to liberal side of legislation.

The Tulsa-based nonprofit will be known as the Oklahoma Opportunity Project and will be headed by state Senate Finance Committee Chairman Mike Mazzei (R-Tulsa). He was unable to run for reelection this year due to the 12-year legislative term-limits. He will be joined by at least two other departing legislators who will serve on the board of the think tank. Sen. John Ford (R-Bartlesville), a retired ConocoPhillips executive who chairs the Senate Education Committee, also is being forced out by term-limits. Sen. Jim Halligan (R-Stillwater), a former Oklahoma State University president who chaired the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on education, decided not to run for a third term. Several other retiring lawmakers, including some House members, have been invited to join but have not yet committed.

Mazzei, a certified financial planner, claims that the Opportunity Project will reflect the views of "fiscal conservatives" like himself on issues of state finance, education, and health policy. But, based on their legislative record and proposed solutions, it appears that their version of "fiscal conservatism" is to block tax cuts, increase fees, and barrow money through bonds rather than keeping state spending in check.

The Oklahoma Opportunity Project will join an arena which includes two other policy research and advocacy think tanks: the liberal Oklahoma Policy Institute in Tulsa and the conservative Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs in Oklahoma City. The positions stated for the Opportunity Project are similar to those of the Oklahoma Policy Institute. Mazzei says the existing organizations play an important role in the legislative process, but generally lack the insider perspective provided by years of service in the Legislature.

Mazzei, Halligan and Ford were part of the GOP legislative leadership this year and were frustrated at the inability to properly deal with the $1.3 billion budget hole this year. Mazzei says that some of his Republican colleagues often make proposals that sound good, but don't work in the real world. He claims that they do not understand the political realities of how to get things done at the Capitol. Mazzei says the Legislature should have done more to reduce the state's revenue shortfall by delaying the previously approved income tax cut and changing the "trigger" formula for coming reductions. He also says that lawmakers should have approved a teacher pay raise plan.

The scores earned by the trio on the Oklahoma Conservative Index this year place them in the RINO category. Mazzei and Ford both received a 40% conservative rating this year, and Halligan only scored 13%. Halligan's score was actually lower than any Democrat senator scored, and a couple of Democrats scored higher than Mazzei and Ford.

All three of the senators voted to place the state further into bonded indebtedness to provide more money for renovation of the State Capitol Building. This was one of the ten bills included on this year's Oklahoma Conservative Index. HB 3168 by Speaker of the House Jeff Hickman (R-Fairview) and Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman authorizes the state to issue up to $125 million in additional bonds to complete the Capitol Restoration Project, which began in 2015 and is scheduled to be finished by 2022. The bill brings the total price tag for renovating the State Capitol Building to $245 million. State officials said the initial bond issue was passed based on a visual inspection in 2009 that did not incorporate the time-consuming and intrusive investigations necessary to gain a full understanding of the Capitol's problems and the cost to fix them. According to the state Constitution, the issuing of bond debt must be approved by a vote of the people, instead of only by the legislators. The senators also supported a variety of fee increases and other bills aimed at increasing the flow of revenue into state coffers.

It appears that the purpose of the Oklahoma Opportunity Project may be to provide cover for Republican legislators to support liberal legislation under the guise of being "fiscally conservative."

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