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Capitol Insider: Lawmakers question fiscal transparency, planning in state park system

Quartz Mountain State Park
Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department
Quartz Mountain State Park

Oklahoma legislators tasked with oversight of state fiscal transparency had some tough questions for the director of the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department, focusing on financial accountability and customer service at state parks.


Dick Pryor: This is Capitol Insider, your weekly look inside Oklahoma politics, policy and government. I'm Dick Pryor with Quorum Call publisher Shawn Ashley. We don't talk a lot about LOFT, the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency, which meets about every six weeks. But Shawn, the LOFT Oversight Committee met on Thursday and questioned the director of the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department, Jerry Winchester. There were a couple of distinct, but different, themes to the questions. What did legislators focus on?

Shawn Ashley: Well, LOFT’s report focused on the state parks, particularly their recent improvements that were largely funded by a bond issue approved by lawmakers and their current operations. Representative Meloyde Blancett and some other lawmakers were concerned with the overall operations of the state parks. Sort of a 30,000 foot view, if you will, and questioned why some of the improvements seem to focus on areas that park visitors had not ranked as important in their customer surveys. She was also concerned that the department's plans did not appear to focus on its more desirable assets but took a more overall all-encompassing approach. Now, Representative Ryan Martinez and a handful of other members focused on contracts for the renovation and operation of restaurants at several state parks, which have cost the department several million dollars more than was originally anticipated.

Dick Pryor: Ultimately, who is responsible for making decisions about the direction of tourism and recreation and the contracts they award?

Shawn Ashley: Well, Winchester said the majority of the decisions come down to him and his staff. Now, the Tourism and Recreation Commission used to play a larger role in that process, but it was made an advisory commission by legislation passed in 2018. Winchester is the first director to operate under the new arrangement.

Dick Pryor: The governor's office has made a handful of key appointments in the last few days, including a new member of the Pardon and Parole Board. That board has seen a considerable amount of churn over the last three years. Board service is a rather thankless task. What qualifications are required for a member of the Pardon and Parole Board?

Shawn Ashley: Pardon and Parole members have to meet very specific requirements that are part of state law. They have to have at least a bachelor's degree and at least five years’ experience in either criminal justice, parole, probation, corrections, criminal law, law enforcement, mental health services, substance abuse services or social work. And at least two members of the board are required to have at least five years of training or experience in mental health services, substance abuse services or social work. Cathy Stocker, who was appointed on Thursday, is a former district attorney, so she meets the criminal justice and criminal law requirements and likely some of the others.

It's not in the law, but I would say Pardon and Parole Board members also must have a very deep willingness to serve. The board meets once a month, usually for three or four days, and considers hundreds of commutation, pardon and parole applications. And of course, late last year, the board heard five death row clemency applications. So, it's a pretty tough job.

Dick Pryor: On Wednesday, Governor Stitt signed into law the first substantive policy bill of the session, Senate Bill 2, called the “Save Women's Sports Act,” which purports to prevent transgendered females from participating in women's and girls’ sports. Did proponents of the “Save Women's Sports Act” also propose additional funding for female athletic programs and facilities?

Shawn Ashley: No, they did not.

Dick Pryor: All right. Is there any additional funding provided for schools that may get sued for damages under this law?

Shawn Ashley: No, but that's not unusual. Almost every session, lawmakers pass and the governor signs legislation that creates a new cause of action against public entities such as the state, school districts or municipalities. And I cannot think of a single time where they have set aside money to defend those cases, much less pay for damages awarded as a result of that legal action.

Dick Pryor: That's the first of several social issue bills that probably will go to the governor in this election year. Are there other social issue bills nearing the governor's desk?

Shawn Ashley: There are other social issue bills moving through the process, including several bills on abortion, a number of gun-related measures and one that sets standards for books that will be included in school libraries. Currently, those bills are in committee and must be approved on the floor of the chamber before they can go to Stitt for his consideration.

Dick Pryor: What should we watch for in the week ahead?

Shawn Ashley: There'll be a lot of work in committees to come. The deadline for bills to be heard in a committee of the opposite chamber is a little less than two weeks away.

Dick Pryor: All right. Thanks, Shawn.

Shawn Ashley: You're very welcome.

Dick Pryor: We would like to hear from you. Email your questions to news@kgou.org or contact us on Twitter @kgounews and @QuorumCallShawn. For more information, go to quorumcall.online. You can find audio and transcripts at kgou.org. Until next time with Shawn Ashley, I'm Dick Pryor.

Dick Pryor has more than 25 years of experience in public service media, having previously served as deputy director, managing editor, news manager, news anchor and host for OETA, Oklahoma’s statewide public TV network. He was named general manager of KGOU Radio in November, 2016.
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