- Associated Press - Friday, March 25, 2016

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - As leaders in the Oklahoma House and Senate struggle to close a $1.3 billion budget hole, Republicans behind the scenes are jockeying for powerful state government positions that will be vacant after this fall’s election.

Leadership in the Senate is likely to pass from President Pro Tempore Brian Bingman, who is term-limited, to No. 2 Republican leader Mike Schulz, who has two years left on his term. But in the House, a spirited race is developing to replace outgoing Speaker Jeff Hickman.

Besides overseeing their chambers’ operations and developing policy, the speaker and pro tem are responsible for negotiating with the governor on how to divvy up roughly $6 billion a year from the state’s General Revenue Fund. But neither position has served as much of a springboard to higher office: Of those who’ve held the positions in the last two decades, only former Speaker Todd Hiett has won another election.

Elections for both leaders will be held in private Republican caucus meetings before the Legislature adjourns in May.

In the House, the race in the 71-member House Republican caucus to replace Hickman is between a second-term House member from southeastern Oklahoma, community banker Charles McCall, 45, against more seasoned lawmaker Earl Sears, 63, a ten-year veteran of the House who chairs the powerful Appropriations and Budget Committee.

A longtime teacher and school administrator from Bartlesville with an outgoing personality, Sears rose through the House ranks over a decade and draws much of his support from the more veteran members. McCall is quiet and reserved, but also well-respected among a large freshman and sophomore class of Republicans eager to make their mark in the Legislature.

“I feel very comfortable with where I am with the members,” Sears said. “But we won’t know for sure until the first Monday in May.”

McCall acknowledged his candidacy, but said he didn’t feel comfortable publicly discussing internal caucus politics.

“I’m honored just to be considered,” McCall said.

State Rep. Leslie Osborn of Mustang withdrew from consideration in December and has backed McCall, while Rep. John Bennett of Sallisaw dropped out and endorsed Sears because of his experience with the budget.

“I think there’s general respect across the board from more junior and senior members for both candidates,” Bennett said. “Members really have two good candidates to choose from.”

Another potential candidate, Rep. Scott Martin of Norman, who is term-limited in 2018, declined to say if he still planned to run.

By all accounts, the race for House Speaker is a good-natured one, which former Republican Speaker Chris Benge said is important to keep the caucus as united as possible.

“It’s probably one of the toughest decisions that members have to make,” said Benge, now Oklahoma’s secretary of state. “It’s like an inner-family decision, because you have two people the members really like.”


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