Okla. lawmakers pick leaders, pledge budget focus

TIM TALLEY - Associated Press
Oklahoma state Rep. Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, center, is sworn in as Speaker of the Oklahoma House, with his wife, Kellie, right, at his side, in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2011. At left is Oklahoma Supreme Court Chief Justice Steven W. Taylor. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
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Oklahoma state Rep. Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, center, is sworn in as Speaker of the Oklahoma House, with his wife, Kellie, right, at his side, in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2011. At left is Oklahoma Supreme Court Chief Justice Steven W. Taylor.

Oklahoma Republicans used their increased legislative power Wednesday to elect two of their own to lead the House and Senate, pledging to focus on balancing the state budget and improving its economy during the 2011 Legislature.

Rep. Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, was named speaker of the House and Sen. Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, was chosen president pro tem of the Senate during an organizational meeting at the Capitol. Both warned that a new round of budget cuts were likely at state agencies, considering lawmakers will face a budget shortfall of as much as $600 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Agency budgets have been slashed and state workers have been furloughed or laid off due to budget shortfalls the past two years.

"We're headed for a cliff. Let's look at these issues and resolve them now," Bingman told reporters following his election to the Senate's top job. "At the end of the day we will see a balanced budget."

Steele said policy goals include "sensible reforms" to encourage economic growth and create jobs. Specific legislation is still being developed but will focus on changes to worker's compensation and civil justice policies to lower the cost of doing business in Oklahoma, as well as tax policy, Steele said.

"I think at this point everything is on the table," the new House speaker said.

Legislation is also expected to address a $16 billion unfunded liability in the state's pension systems. Other proposals will address policies at the Department of Corrections to improve public safety, cut costs and reduce recidivism.

The 2011 Legislature convenes on Feb. 7. Republicans widened their majorities in both the House and Senate during the November elections.

Steele was elected House speaker over Democratic Rep. Scott Inman of Oklahoma City in a 69-30 vote along party lines. The GOP, which picked up eight new House seats in the Nov. 2 general election and now outnumbers Democrats 70-31. Steele replaces former House Speaker Chris Benge, R-Tulsa, who was term limited.

House members also voted 69-30 to elect Rep. Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview, as speaker pro tem, the position formerly held by Steele. Rep. Joe Dorman of Rush Springs was the Democratic nominee.

Bingman was elected president pro tem of the Senate without opposition after no one else was nominated. The GOP picked up six new seats in the Senate and now has a 32-16 edge over Democrats in the 48-member chamber.

Bingman replaces former Sen. Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City, the first Republican Senate president pro tem in state history who was also term limited. Republican Gov.-elect Mary Fallin announced Tuesday that Coffee will serve as her secretary of state.