Capitol Insider: Outgoing Labor Commissioner On Tough Decisions Amid State Budget Woes
Melissa McLawhorn Houston was appointed Oklahoma Labor Commissioner by Governor Mary Fallin after Commissioner Mark Costello was murdered by his son in 2015.
McLawhorn Houston served as chief of staff to Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt for four years before being named labor commissioner. She’s also been the chief of staff for the state Office of Homeland Security, and has worked within the criminal justice system as the deputy director of the Oklahoma Sheriffs Association, and as a lawyer with the Oklahoma Truth in Sentencing Policy Advisory Commission.
Since her appointment to the position in 2015, McLawhorn Houston has said she does not plan to run for election to a full term in 2018.
Dick Pryor: This is Capitol Insider, connecting Oklahoma politics, policy and people. I'm Dick Pryor. In 2018, all statewide elected offices will be on the ballot, but one person who won't be running is Oklahoma Labor Commissioner Melissa McLawhorn Houston. She's decided against seeking a full four year term. McLawhorn Houston has extensive experience in Oklahoma government. In addition to labor commissioner, she's served as chief of staff for the Oklahoma Attorney General and the Oklahoma Office of Homeland Security. I talked to her about the work of the Labor Department and what she's learned about Oklahoma state government.
In November 2015, you were appointed labor commissioner following the death of Commissioner Mark Costello. Your office then conducted a review of the agency and how it functions. What resulted from that examination?
Melissa McLawhorn Houston: It has been an amazing experience. I think there was maybe a perception that I was coming into the agency to either do away with the agency or fire a bunch of people, or I'm not exactly sure what the perception was. But I really came in without any preconceived notions. So listening to our staff, listening to industry I was able to identify pretty quickly some areas that just hadn't been updated, that there had just been bureaucracies that had been in place because that's always been done that way. We have updated our regulations for amusements and elevators and boilers and amusement rides. So it's been a really thorough examination.
Pryor: How is the Department of Labor funded?
McLawhorn Houston: We're about a third federally funded, a third from state appropriations and a third from fees-generated revenue. That is specific to fee-for-service. So, we do an elevator inspection, we charge a fee. That is separate from a fine. So, we do have the ability to fine, for example, if we found an elevator out of compliance. My problem with that from a philosophical standpoint, from a from a policy standpoint, is it is too tempting to the director of an agency to say "go find 20 elevators to shut down because I need the fines." That is not the role of government in my opinion. And so one of the things that we did that probably the next commissioner will hate me for, but I think it was the right thing to do, is that we don't keep any of those fines.
Pryor: The department provides various services. Do you have enough staff and resources?
McLawhorn Houston: We never do. No, we never do. But it's a good and healthy debate about what is the appropriate size of government. And what I have told the legislature in many of our functions is we're at the point now that they have a decision to make as to whether or not they want that function to continue. We have one nationally certified boiler inspector at this point. That is an issue that has to be addressed. The revolving door of the people who are on the front lines as inspectors, it's embarrassing, what we pay them. And when they leave us for a private sector job that's twice, literally twice, what we can pay them, that is a problem.
Pryor: Going along with that, as the leader of an agency that has to deal with some of these issues, how concerned are you about the general direction the budget has been heading the last several years?
McLawhorn Houston: I think that again, it's a it's a good and healthy debate to have about what is the appropriate size of government. What is it that we expect of our government? It is a difficult relationship between state agency heads and the legislature right now. It needs to be a collaborative relationship. I feel very comfortable with my subcommittee chairman, that we can sit down and have a very transparent discussion about "Here's our budget, here is our revenue sources, here are expenses, here's what's hurting me, i.e. the revolving door of my staff at this point, here's my plan to address it." I feel like I can have that discussion. I don't think all state agency heads can have that discussion. There are some, you know, really big agencies that, probably 10 agencies, that take up 80 percent of the budget. I think all people agreed that those are very core services. Part of my concern has been the 20 percent of the budget that is taking such substantial hits. When you talk about some of the smaller agencies like the Department of Labor, I mean some of them are down 35 percent, 40 percent, 60 percent over a period of time. Well, then we need to have a discussion. Is that an agency we want to have? Is that a core service we want to have? And that's the discussion I've had with the legislature. And they think that we are providing a core service. If that's the case then we all need to work together to figure out a way to fund it.
Pryor: That's Capitol Insider. To hear an extended version of my discussion with Melissa McLawhorn Houston, go to the Capitol Insider Extra podcast on iTunes. Until next time, I'm Dick Pryor.