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Oklahoma governor’s monopoly on turnpike board to end but changes may take time

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt delivers his State of the State address Monday, Feb. 6, 2023, in Oklahoma City.
Sue Ogrocki
/
AP
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt delivers his State of the State address Monday, Feb. 6, 2023, in Oklahoma City.

A new law takes away the governor’s ability to appoint all members of the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority board, but many of the appointees likely won’t change until after Gov. Kevin Stitt is out of office.

Legislation from Rep. Danny Sterling, R-Tecumseh, eliminates the governor’s monopoly on Turnpike Authority board appointments by allowing the House speaker and Senate president pro tempore to each make two appointments to the six-member panel.

Lawmakers in June overturned Stitt’s veto of the bill, allowing it to take effect Nov. 1.

But the new law allows the current Turnpike Authority board appointees to finish their eight-year terms, meaning legislative leaders may have to wait until 2028 or later to appoint new members.

“I can’t give you a timeline or even speculate on how soon we’ll start to see an impact there,” Sterling said.

However, it’s unclear when one board member’s term ends, which could present an opportunity for changes to occur sooner rather than later.

State records appear to show board member John Titsworth’s term expired in July, although he continues to serve on the panel. Turnpike Authority spokesperson Lisa Shearer-Salim and the Governor’s Office did not respond to questions about when Titsworth’s term ends.

The head of the state Senate will get to appoint Titsworth’s successor.

Sterling said he’s already heard from a former state representative who planned to contact the speaker with suggestions for possible board appointees.

The new law creates a balance of power between the legislative and executive branches that prevents one person from pushing a political agenda by having a majority of board appointments, Sterling said.

“It keeps one branch of government from controlling the destiny of the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority board of directors,” he said.

Stitt vetoed Sterling’s bill, alleging it was unconstitutional and could cause decisions made by the Turnpike Authority’s board to face “legitimate legal challenges.”

The governor took issue with the bill because it gave the Legislature a majority of the board appointments, which would “codify legislative superiority and control over the operation of an executive branch agency and would enable the Legislature to exercise unconstitutionally coercive influence over the executive department,” he wrote in his veto letter.

The governor has made all appointments to the board since the Turnpike Authority was created in 1947, agency spokesperson Shearer-Salim said.

Sterling said he worked on the bill in conjunction with members of Pike Off OTA, a group that has been critical of the Turnpike Authority’s ACCESS toll road expansion plan.

Pike Off member Randy Carter said his group crafted the bill in such a way to let current board members serve out their terms because he didn’t think the Oklahoma Legislature would pass the measure otherwise.

“We weren’t trying to kick anybody off the board,” he said.

The current members didn’t do anything wrong. There was no reason to oust them from the board, Carter said.

The intent of the legislation was to spread the power to appoint members across multiple branches of government as is common at many state agencies, he said.

Carter questioned whether members of the Stitt-appointed board seriously questioned or pushed back on the $5 billion, 15-year ACCESS Oklahoma expansion plan backed by the governor when it came up for a vote.

“We feel like the Turnpike Authority has been nothing more than a rubber stamp for the governor,” he said.

Under the new law, the House speaker will get to appoint members to the board when the terms of Stitt appointees William Berry Jr. and Dana Weber expire in 2028 and 2029 respectively.

The Senate president pro tempore will get to appoint someone to the board when Stitt appointee Gene Love’s term ends in 2030.

Board seats are broken up by regions of the state.

Oklahoma Voice is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oklahoma Voice maintains editorial independence.

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