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Turnover, scandals have some rethinking governor’s power boost

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

After several scandals and turnover in agency leadership, some Oklahoma lawmakers are rethinking their efforts to give the governor direct appointment power over the largest state agencies.

The state’s Progressive-era constitution more than a century ago dispersed executive power across scores of agencies, boards and commissions. But lawmakers seeking more direct accountability for the governor upended that in 2018 and 2019 as they took agency director hiring authority away from six agency oversight boards and gave it to the governor.

The changes, approved by a Republican-dominated Legislature and signed by Republican governors, were less about party and more about streamlining the governor’s authority. In exchange, the Senate got confirmation power over agency directors. House and Senate leaders got to choose additional members of the boards, but not a majority.

Law professor Andrew Spiropoulos, director of Oklahoma City University’s Center for the Study of State Constitutional Law and Government, said numerous bipartisan studies over the years have shown the executive branch doesn’t have enough power to run state government in Oklahoma.

“We have so many separately elected officials who run separate departments, so the governor has no control over huge portions of Oklahoma government,” Spiropoulos said. “It’s very difficult to coordinate policy when you’re dealing with people who are going to have their own agendas. But even the departments that don’t have separately elected heads, the way we’ve run those departments is to have professional executive directors who answer to multi-member boards.”

Some, but not all, of the changes to gubernatorial power came after political scandals or legislative frustration with public policy or spending at a particular state agency. More notable examples include the Swadley’s barbecue restaurant contract at state parks under the Department of Tourism and Recreation and missing funds at the Oklahoma State Department of Health in 2017.

Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt, now in his second and final term, campaigned on expanded gubernatorial powers during his first run for governor in 2018. He touted his business experience as the founder of Gateway Mortgage Group and said he would run the state like a business, which meant the ability to hire and fire top managers at the biggest state agencies. A Republican-dominated Legislature gave him that ability during the honeymoon phase of his first term.

Separate bills in 2019 changed the composition of governing boards at five agencies and gave the power to pick those agency directors to the governor. Similar changes were undertaken in 2018 at the Health Department. Voters in 2012 made the changes at the Department of Human Services when they approved State Question 765.

However, voters in 2018 rejected a state question that would have expanded the governor’s powers. State Question 798 had the governor and lieutenant governor run on the same ticket. Voters rejected it by a margin of 54% to 46%.

Buyer’s Remorse?

A handful of lawmakers now want to pull some authority away from the governor. Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, filedSenate Bill 4 in the 2023 session to restore the agency director hiring decision to an oversight board for the Tourism Department. The Senate approved the bill, but it didn’t get a floor vote in the House. It is still available to consider in the 2024 session. That proposal would reverse the changes the Legislature approved in 2018 under House Bill 3603.

The Tourism Department’s Swadley’s scandal led to Thompson’s bill. But as the scandal fades from memory and the Tourism Department has a new executive director, Shelley Zumwalt, it’s unclear if SB 4 will gain traction in the upcoming session. The state’s multicounty grand jury heard from witnesses about the Swadley’s scandal in August, according to The Oklahoman.

Andy Moore, founder of Let’s Fix This, a nonprofit that educates Oklahomans on the political process and civic engagement, said the pandemic scrambled operations at many agencies, making it harder to determine if expanded governor powers over agencies were effective. He said some lawmakers also may have buyer’s remorse about the changes.

“In general, I think it’s worked as the governor hoped it would,” Moore said. “He’s been able to appoint people who align with his plan or his desires. But there’s been less checks and balances. Less accountability because the agency heads are going to do what he says. And in cases where they don’t, they’re out.”

Stitt’s budget secretary, John Laws, sent a series of emails to state agencies in September reminding them of the governor’s focus on cost-cutting as the agencies were putting together budget requests for fiscal year 2025, which starts July 1. The governor will submit his executive budget proposal to the Legislature when the session begins in February.

“In his continued efforts to limit the growth of government, the Governor encourages you to analyze your submission to attempt to fund your incremental requests for FY-25 through the identification of efficiencies or other means without an increase to your request for state appropriations,” Laws wrote to directors at agencies that included the Department of Human Services, Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services and the Tourism Department.

Management Style

Spiropoulos said Stitt has prioritized appointing agency directors with extensive management experience ahead of agency operations expertise. Stitt, who had no prior government experience before becoming governor, pulled from his own business networks or recruited managers from the oil and gas industry. That has sometimes caused friction between the new managers and existing agency staff, as well as lawmakers.

“There’s conflict there because the people in the Legislature are used to the way things have run in the past,” Spiropoulos said. “That’s the only thing they knew. So they were for change in the abstract, but once it became real and they saw how it actually played out, then you were going to have some pushback.”

Early in Stitt’s first term, Joe Allbaugh resigned abruptly from his position leading the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. Allbaugh had clashed with a new board made up of a majority of Stitt appointees for the first time over funding needs for prisons. The board chairman at the time was Steven Harpe, a former Gateway Mortgage chief information officer who later led the Office of Management and Enterprise Services. Stitt selected Harpe to lead the Corrections Department in October 2022.

Harpe is making $275,000 a year as director at the Corrections Department. His predecessor, Scott Crow, who started at the department in 1996 and worked his way up to chief of operations before becoming director in December 2019, made $185,000 a year.

Moore said it’s less common for agency directors to stay for extended periods of time helming state agencies. That’s partly a function of both pay and job stress. State lawmakers, similarly, aren’t staying to the end of their term limits, even in safe seats where they are unlikely to face challengers.

“It’s a hard job,” Moore said. “I think by the end of eight years or whatever, most folks are ready to move on because it’s a lot of stress.”

Stitt, for his part, has said he typically asks for two-year commitments from agency directors who have come from the private sector.

“I’m proud of the people that we brought into state government because I’m trying to bring a fresh set of eyes, people from all walks of life, from the business world,” Stitt told Oklahoma Watch in an interview last year as he ran for re-election.

Meanwhile, frustration with a Stitt-directed, $5 billion plan for turnpike expansion led to a new state law taking away the governor’s power to appoint all the members of the board for the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority. House Bill 2263, by Rep. Danny Sterling, R-Tecumseh, took effect Nov. 1 after lawmakers overrode Stitt’s veto. Because board members serve eight-year terms, it’s unlikely to cause any immediate changes since current board members can serve the remainder of their existing terms. The new law splits appointments between the executive and legislative branches.

Spiropoulos said outside of a full state constitutional convention, which is highly unlikely, lawmakers may continue to tinker statutorily with changes to Oklahoma’s gubernatorial powers. He said it’s doubtful they will pull back many of the changes from the last 10 to 15 years.

“I think most of the big reforms will stay in place for the most important agencies,” Spiropoulos said. “There may be a push and pull here and there on an agency or two when the Legislature sends a message to the governor: ‘Don’t go too far. We can pull back on this.’ A new governor, whatever party they’re from, is not going to want to give up this power. And they always come in with a honeymoon period.”

Here’s a look at the agencies where the governor gained powers to hire and fire agency directors in the last dozen years:

Oklahoma Department of Corrections

Fiscal Year 2024 appropriation: $552.6 million

Current director: Steven Harpe

Number of directors since 2018: Three (Joe Allbaugh; Scott Crow; Harpe)

Board composition: Nine (five appointed by the governor; two by the Senate President Pro Tempore; two by the House Speaker)

Notes: Harpe previously served as the state’s chief operating officer and director of the Office of Management and Enterprise Services. As director of the Corrections Department, Harpe’s salary is the second-highest in the region, second only to Brian Collier, director of Texas’ prison system, who makes $287,657 per year.

Oklahoma Health Care Authority

Fiscal Year 2024 appropriation: $1.49 billion

Current director: Ellen Buettner

Number of directors since 2018: Three (Rebecca Pasternik-Ikard; Kevin Corbett; Buettner)

Board composition: Nine (five appointed by the governor; two by the Senate President Pro Tempore; two by the House Speaker)

Notes: Stitt named Buettner CEO in August. She faces Senate confirmation in the 2024 legislative session. Buettner was chief of staff under Corbett. The state’s Medicaid program, SoonerCare, will transition from a fee-for-service payment model to a managed-care payment system in 2024.

Oklahoma Department of Transportation

Fiscal Year 2024 appropriation: $791.4 million

Current director: Tim Gatz

Number of directors since 2018: Two (Mike Patterson; Gatz)

Board composition: Nine (five appointed by the governor; two by the Senate President Pro Tempore; two by the House Speaker)

Notes: Gatz is Transportation Secretary and executive director of the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority.

Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services

Fiscal Year 2024 appropriation: $359 million

Current director: Vacant

Number of directors since 2018: Two (Terri White, Carrie Slatton-Hodges)

Board composition: Nine (five appointed by the governor; two by the Senate President Pro Tempore; two by the House Speaker); the commissioner is an ex officio board member and only votes in case of ties

Notes: Slatton-Hodges resigned in November and took a job with the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors.

Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs

Fiscal Year 2024 appropriation: $100.9 million

Current director: Jeffrey Cartmell

Number of directors since 2018: Three (Steven Buck; Rachel Holt; Cartmell)

Board composition: Nine (five appointed by the governor; two by the Senate President Pro Tempore; two by the House Speaker)

Notes: Stitt appointed Cartmell in October and he will serve pending Senate confirmation in the 2024 legislative session.

Oklahoma State Department of Health

Fiscal Year 2024 appropriation: $71.5 million

Current director: Keith Reed

Number of directors since 2018: Six (Preston Doerflinger (interim); Brian Downs (acting); Tom Bates (interim); Gary Cox; Dr. Lance Frye; Reed)

Board composition: Nine (advisory only; all appointed by the governor for nine-year terms)

Notes: Lawmakers changed the agency director qualifications in April 2022, allowing Reed to take the helm permanently after Senate confirmation. He had been serving on an interim basis since October 2021 and has worked for the department for more than 20 years.

Oklahoma Department of Human Services

Fiscal Year 2024 appropriation: $766.7 million

Current director: Dr. Deborah Shropshire

Number of directors since 2018: Three (Ed Lake; Justin Brown; Shropshire)

Board composition: No general oversight board; instead, there are four advisory panels of five members each for aging services, developmental disabilities services, children and family services and administration.

Notes: Voters in 2012 passed State Question 765, a constitutional amendment that put the appointment of the director under the governor, subject to Senate confirmation. Stitt appointed Shropshire in January, and the Senate confirmed her in May.

Oklahoma Department of Tourism and Recreation

Fiscal Year 2024 appropriation: $24.1 million

Current director: Shelley Zumwalt

Number of directors since 2018: Three (Dick Dutton; Jerry Winchester; Zumwalt)

Board composition: Nine (advisory only; all appointed by the governor with Senate confirmation, except the lieutenant governor)

Notes: Stitt appointed Zumwalt in October 2022. She previously led the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission and held various roles before that at the Office of Management and Enterprise Services, the Health Care Authority and the governor’s office under Gov. Mary Fallin.

Reporter Keaton Ross contributed to this report.

Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public-policy issues facing the state

Oklahoma Watch is a non-profit organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on important public-policy issues facing the state. Oklahoma Watch is non-partisan and strives to be balanced, fair, accurate and comprehensive. The reporting project collaborates on occasion with other news outlets. Topics of particular interest include poverty, education, health care, the young and the old, and the disadvantaged.
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