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Long Story Short: Turnover, scandals have some rethinking Governor’s power boost

Oklahoma Watch, Jan. 31, 2024

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.

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.

The complete article from Oklahoma Watch offers a look at the agencies where the governor gained powers to hire and fire agency directors in the last dozen years.

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