Does Oklahoma Have a Unicameral Legislature in its Future?

Does Oklahoma have a Unicameral Legislature in its Future? - November 15, 2019

State Representative David Perryman

                On November 2, 1889, when Republican President Benjamin Harrison was handed the Statehood Proclamations for two territories, he covered, shuffled, signed and shuffled them again so that no one, including himself would ever know whether South Dakota or North Dakota was admitted to the Union as the 39th State or which was the 40th.

                What was clear on that day and as President Harrison signed Proclamations bringing four more states into the Union over the next nine months was that the razor thin Republican majority in the 50th United States Senate would be impacted because of the Great Compromise made 102 years earlier.

The monumental compromise between large states and small states provided that while the House of Representative would be elected based on population and would have the exclusive right to originate budget and revenue bills, each state regardless of size would have two senators seated in the United States Senate. It was so significant that if the delegates to the United States Constitutional Convention had not reached the Great Compromise of 1787, it is likely that the United States Constitution would have never been ratified.

Consequently, what was a 39-37 Republican majority on November 1, 1889, quickly became a 51-37 GOP majority in the U.S. Senate as a result of the admission of the six states culminating with Wyoming in July 1890.

Seventeen years later, Republican President Theodore Roosevelt was faced with petitions from Indian Territory and Oklahoma Territory to admit them as separate states. Both leaned Democratic. There had not been any Democratic leaning states admitted to the Union in nearly 50 years and while Republican President Theodore Roosevelt was under intense pressure, he certainly did not want four new Democratic Senators.

Separate statehood was denied. Oklahoma was admitted 108 years ago this week and Oklahomans promptly elected Robert L. Owen and Thomas Gore as their first two Democratic Senators.

Oklahoma state government also adopted a form of the federal model of a bicameral legislature that was designed to provide representation based partially on geographic boundaries and partially on population. Due to population shifts through the years, representation became unequal.

According to a historical account by George G. Humphreys, Research Director of the state’s House of Representatives, a study by the University of Oklahoma found that in the mid 1950’s a person living in Cimarron County was equal in representation to 10.1 persons living in Oklahoma County. In fact, the study showed that 29% of the state elected a majority of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.

Ultimately litigation and a federal court ruling reduced the apportionment and redistricting process of the Oklahoma Senate and House to a system where neither Senate Districts nor House Districts have any relationship to county lines and the number of members as well as the lines are arbitrarily established.

Consequently, Senate Districts are simply oversized House Districts and the resulting bureaucratic duplicity hinders good legislation and increases the amount of bad legislation.

Oklahoma could follow the lead of that Nebraska took during the impoverished years of the Great Depression and eliminate a legislative house.

According to Ballotpedia, the Encyclopedia of American Politics, in 2010, the average state senator in the United States represented 156,339 citizens and in Oklahoma, a state senator represented 78,153 citizens. Likewise, the average state representative had 59,626 constituents and Oklahoma state representatives had 37,142.

In short, Oklahoma could eliminate the entire Senate and 38 of the House seats and each of the remaining 63 representatives would have fewer constituents than the average state representative in the United States.

Eliminating 86 (57.7%) of the members of the legislature would produce the type of savings that is being championed by State Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones.

Will it happen? Probably not. At least not until the people of the State of Oklahoma realize the importance of knowing the issues, going to the polls and holding elected officials accountable.

Call or email with questions or comments at 800-522-8502 or 405-557-7401 or David.Perryman@okhouse.gov.