Oklahoma House Members Revolt, Oust Speaker

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In an unprecedented move, members of the Oklahoma House voted this month to strip the chamber's Speaker, Jim Barker, of his powerful office just days before the legislative session was scheduled to conclude.

Mr. Barker, whose six-year tenure as speaker was the longest in state history, was removed from his leadership post by a vote of 72 to 25. Critics said the Muskogee Democrat's heavy-handed style had angered many of the chamber's 101 members.

"Everybody had a different reason," said Representative Carolyn Thompson, who chairs the House education committee and backed the speaker's removal. "There was a lack of communication and the concentration of power in the hands of a few."

Although opposition to Mr. Barker had been building for some time, observers said the ouster movement came to a head when the speaker punished veteran Democrats, including Ms. Thompson, by excluding them from the conference committee that drafts the state budget.

The exclusion was viewed as punishment because the Democrats had signed a letter protesting a demand from the majority floor leader, Mr. Barker's top assistant, that a member of the board of regents appear before the legislature to apologize for comments critical of lawmakers.

Members also were upset with Mr. Barker's decision to block the House from considering a $2,000 pay raise for beginning teachers, pending Senate approval of additional funds for prisons.

The legislature was scheduled to adjourn on May 26. Earlier in the week, lawmakers approved an education budget that raised state aid to schools by $51 million, or 6.2 percent above the current level.

The budget specified that 75 percent of the new funds be used for teacher salaries. The Oklahoma Education Association, which has threatened to stage a statewide strike next fall, had sought a higher spending level.--nm

Vol. 08, Issue 36

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