Departing Lawmakers Launch Conservative Think Tank
By Warren Vieth, Oklahoma Watch
Three veteran state lawmakers whose government service careers are about to end are launching a new think tank that promotes conservative fiscal policies.
The Oklahoma Opportunity Project, a Tulsa-based nonprofit, is headed by state Senate Finance Committee Chairman Mike Mazzei, R-Tulsa, who is leaving the Legislature in January because he has reached the statutory limit of 12 years of legislative service.
At least two other departing legislators will serve on the board: Sen. Jim Halligan, a former Oklahoma State University president who currently chairs the Senate Appropriations education subcommittee, and Sen. John Ford, a retired ConocoPhillips executive who chairs the Senate Education Committee.
Halligan decided to retire from the Legislature instead of running for a third term this year. Ford, like Mazzei, is leaving because he has reached the end of his term limit.
Several other retiring lawmakers, including some House members, have been invited to participate but have not yet confirmed, Mazzei said.
Mazzei, a certified financial planner, told Oklahoma Watch that the Opportunity Project will reflect the views of fiscal conservatives like himself on issues of state finance, education and health policy.
“Our goal, in the era of term limits, is to offer policy ideas and institutional knowledge to members of the Legislature who would like to have some expertise that doesn’t come from lobbyists and agency employees,” Mazzei said.
The Opportunity Project will enter a policy-advising field that includes a number of single-focus organizations as well as at least two prominent multi-issue research and advocacy groups: the center-left Oklahoma Policy Institute in Tulsa and the conservative Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs in Oklahoma City.
Mazzei said organizations such as OK Policy and OCPA play an important role in the legislative process, but generally lack the insider perspective gained from years of service in the House or Senate.
“Our ideological friends out there sometimes make proposals that sound good on paper, but they don’t work in the real world,” Mazzei said. “And neither do they understand the political realities of how to get stuff done at the Capitol.
“That level of detail and expertise frankly just doesn’t exist at the think tanks,“ he said.
Although Mazzei, Halligan and Ford were part of the GOP legislative leadership team this year, Mazzei cited two examples of significant policy mistakes he thinks were made during a session dominated by a $1.3 billion budget hole:
- The Legislature should have done more to reduce the state’s structural revenue shortfall heading into 2017, including delaying an already approved income tax cut and changing the “trigger” formula for yet another reduction, he said.
- Lawmakers should have approved their own teacher pay raise plan, he said, one that required teachers to work a few more days each year and participate in more career enhancement programs.
The think tank board also will include three non-legislative directors: Mazzei’s father James Mazzei, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel in Tulsa; Joel Sander, an Edmond accountant, and Jamie Ledbetter, a Tulsa community volunteer.
Mazzei said his goal was to have a board with eight to 10 members. He said the group would have no paid staffers during its first year of operation and was in the process of creating an initial operating budget.
Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that produces in-depth and investigative content on a range of public-policy issues facing the state. For more Oklahoma Watch content, go to oklahomawatch.org.