11 Bills In 11 Days – Episode 5

This year, Governor Fallin signed 394 pieces of legislation. I was the primary Senate author of 11 of those bills. Over 11 days, I am telling the story of each bill – where it came from, how it progressed through the Legislature, and what it means to the people of Oklahoma. This is in keeping with my longstanding support of transparency, and hopefully you’ll find this exercise insightful.
The first page of HB 2358.

The first page of HB 2358.

Today, we continue with House Bill 2358, which updated Oklahoma’s cable television statutes and added a clause to maintain fairness in an increasingly competitive market.

I’ve discussed in past episodes two concepts that came into play with HB 2358. One is what it means to be the author of a bill in its second chamber (as opposed to being its original author). I was the Senate author of HB 2358, which was obviously a House bill. This meant I wasn’t involved in the original drafting of HB 2358. And I wouldn’t have had a lot to contribute anyways, as it was a pretty technical bill, amending sections of statute that are relevant only to people who operate cable television companies. And as it turned out, I saw no need to make changes when it arrived in the Senate.
The second concept discussed in a previous episode that comes into play here is the concept of a lobbyist-driven bill. Bill ideas come from lots of places, but many come from lobbyists. Especially a very technical one like this. As I said in Episode One, I don’t mind working with lobbyists, as long as I agree with their idea. To agree with their idea, I have to approve of it philosophically and I have to believe it is good for my constituents. In this case, nothing proposed in this bill appeared to undermine fairness or the free market. And if it brought stability to the cable television industry, that was good for my constituents, as I feel comfortable saying they like cable television and want to see it continue.
Representatives of Cox Communications approached me before session began about being the Senate author of what would become HB 2358. They indicated they were interested in me because I was one of the more tech-savvy members of the Senate. I think that just means I don’t have my assistant print out my e-mails so I can read them.
To be the author of this, I wanted to run some traps first. One of the first things I did was make sure that the cities approved of the bill, because it was in the section of law that related to the way cable companies interact with cities. You may or may not know that cable companies have to make what is known as a “franchise agreement” with cities in order to bury their cables underneath public streets. The cities had been part of the drafting process, and so they were fine.
I also approached Cox’s competitors, because when one company approaches you, it’s my job to make sure this isn’t an attempt to use statute to gain a business advantage against competitors. But AT&T’s representatives said they supported the bill as well. I then approached Google.
Most of the bill had to do with very technical updates. For instance, even though in this piece I keep calling HB 2358 a bill related to cable television, I recognize that is an increasingly outdated phrase, and one of the updates in the bill was to delete that phrase from statute and substitute “video services.” But one substantive change in the bill was clearly focused on Google, and I wanted to make sure they had no concerns. That was a section I would call a “me, too” clause. It stated that when one provider struck a deal with a city, other providers could get the same deal. That seemed fair, but I knew what it was aimed at. There is a perception among Google’s competitors that Google Fiber gets sweetheart deals from cities simply because Google has done a great job marketing Google Fiber and creating demand from cities and their residents. And as I knew, Google had just announced it was bringing Google Fiber to Oklahoma City. I didn’t necessarily see a problem with the provision, but I wanted to make sure Google didn’t either. They told me they were fine.
And so the bill, authored by Rep. Weldon Watson, proceeded through the House process.
Incidentally, and I discussed this a bit in Episode 2, sometimes your fellow author in the other chamber becomes like a brother or sister as you push forward together, and sometimes you never speak to them. In this case, Rep. Watson and I never spoke about this bill or anything else this session. It was just not necessary, and when time is as finite as it is during the legislative session, unnecessary conversations never occur.
Meanwhile, HB 2358 had reached the House floor. This moment in the life of HB 2358 is a great example of the downsides of our process.
It goes without saying that probably no one in the Oklahoma Legislature is an expert on cable television law. And yet here we find ourselves, standing on the floor, debating it, with no lifeline to someone who does have expertise. And the rushed nature of the process maximizes the potential for error. And so, on Feb. 29, even as the vote was being held for HB 2358, rumor spread on the House floor that the bill would require Netflix and other video streaming services to make agreements with cities. This was not true, but having witnessed these hysterias personally, I can attest they are hard to control once they take hold. And suddenly, this non-controversial bill had failed, 36-48.
In the Legislature, both chambers have provisions for reconsidering a bill that has failed, and so the lobbyists went to work. On March 1st, HB 2358 was voted on a second time, and it passed 83-2.
Now, HB 2358 was in the Senate. The chairman of the General Government Committee agreed to hear it. As I’ve explained in previous episodes, committee chairmen have absolute authority to hear or not hear a bill. It is highly unusual then to see a committee chairman vote against a bill in their committee. But this particular committee chairman has articulated some distaste for the power given to chairmen, and so he has been known to hear bills even though he ends up voting against them. And that was the case here. Committee votes are generally cast orally, and the last person to vote is always the committee chairman. And so though HB 2358 passed 6-1, the one “no” was the last to be cast, and it came from the chairman. I asked him why afterwards, but I’m still not sure I understand why. Sometimes people just like to vote “no.”
The bill uneventfully passed the full Senate on April 5th by a vote of 42-2. The Governor signed it April 12th. It had an “emergency clause” (something I discussed in Episode 2), and so it immediately became law.
HB 2358 is a perfect example of the many bills that go through the legislative process that are not particularly controversial, but are important to the maintenance of our commerce system. But ensuring such bills are not controversial requires a little bit of legwork, and in this case, the lack of actual controversy didn’t help the bill much when the perception of controversy took hold in the House.
Tomorrow, we’ll continue with another episode of #11BillsIn11Days.
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