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Three new leaders selected for state government heading into critical operational period

Over the last few days, Governor Kevin Stitt has announced three key leadership appointments, subject to Senate confirmation.


Capitol Insider sponsored by the Oklahoma State Medical Association, committed to fostering health care in rural Oklahoma through education and public and private partnerships. More on OSMA @okmed.org.

Dick Pryor: This is Capitol Insider - taking you inside politics, policy, and government in Oklahoma. I'm Dick Pryor with Quorum Call publisher Shawn Ashley at the state capitol. Shawn, the last few days have been remarkable for a handful of high-profile appointments to executive branch positions. Why are these positions being filled just three weeks before an election? Does the timing mean anything?

Shawn Ashley: In a way, I think it does. On Thursday. Governor Kevin Stitt appointed Office of Management and Enterprise Services Director Steven Harpe to be executive director of the Department of Corrections. He succeeds Scott Crow, who announced in August he would retire at the end of this month. Stitt appointed John Suter to replace Harpe as OMES as director and state chief operating officer, and John Laws to be Secretary of Budget, a position the governor recreated.

Really, the appointments are a necessity. The Department of Corrections is scheduled to conduct more than 20 executions from November to the end of 2024 - one on Thursday and three after Harpe takes over but before the end of this year. And past experience has shown, the Department of Corrections needs someone in the top leadership posts to guide the agency through them. Suter and Laws will work with Stitt and other state agencies on the fiscal year 2024 budget process that is really already underway.

As you mentioned, the election is just three weeks away, and if Stitt is not reelected, someone still has to oversee the Office of Management and Enterprise Services as it works with the Tax Commission and other agencies on the preparation of the fiscal year 2024 budget estimate, which will be considered for the first time in late December.

Dick Pryor: We know state government positions require knowledge of particular procedures and subject matter. There can be a steep learning curve that has to be addressed quickly. What are these new appointees up against?

Shawn Ashley: Well, before joining OMES, Harpe served on the Board of Corrections and has worked with the agency in his current role. He said Thursday he felt an undeniable pull to get back into the realm of public safety. Suter and Laws have extensive business finance backgrounds. Now you and I have both worked for state agencies, and there's no doubt the three will have to hit the ground running. And that's really where the existing professional staff at the state agencies will come into play, helping to direct them in the directions they need to go to get their jobs accomplished.

Dick Pryor: Governor Stitt vetoed three bills that would have spent ARPA funds for the Oklahoma Arts Council, OETA and the Office of Emergency Management. Legislators worked for more than a year on evaluating projects to be funded with ARPA money. Why have lawmakers not tried to override those vetoes?

Shawn Ashley: Well, first, I think there was a practical consideration - getting enough lawmakers to come back to the Capitol to override the vetoes – but secondly, House Speaker Charles McCall said his chamber would not take up the second session veto overrides unless the Senate took up the grocery and income tax relief bills from the third special session. And Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat has said that they are not going to do that but will put forth a comprehensive tax reform proposal in the 2023 regular session.

Dick Pryor: Shawn, a plan has come to light, based on reporting from KFOR-TV, to build a new governor's mansion using private funds. What's the process involved in renovating or building a new mansion? And is this solely up to the executive branch or does the legislature have a say in what happens?

Shawn Ashley: It is not up solely to the executive branch. State law requires the State Capitol Preservation Commission (to) research, plan, and have control of modification and decor of the interior and exterior of the Capitol and the governor's mansion. So that commission will have to be part of the process and legislative appointees to the commission outnumber gubernatorial appointees 2 to 1. Carly Atchison, Stitt’s director of communications, told me Wednesday the project will be presented to the commission before construction of the family friendly private residence. The governor and first lady are aware of the requirement and will follow the law.

There is also a special zoning commission that will have to be involved - the Capitol- Medical Center Improvement and Zoning Commission. And then, as you mentioned, there's the legislature, which intervened in the State Capitol Planning Commission's activities in the past, requiring that in 2009, for example, to allow the Ten Commandments monument to be placed at the state capitol, which was later removed as the result of a court ruling. And it required the commission to permit a Bill of Rights monument to be placed on the Capitol grounds. The location of that monument has been chosen, the monument design picked, and fundraising is underway for the construction of that monument. So, there are a lot of moving pieces if a new mansion is to be constructed.

Dick Pryor: To be sure. Thanks, Shawn.

Shawn Ashley: You're very welcome.

Dick Pryor: If you have questions, e-mail them to news@kgou.org or contact us on Twitter @kgounews and @QuorumCallShawn. I'm Dick Pryor.

Dick Pryor has more than 30 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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