OKLAHOMA CITY — A Senate committee on Wednesday advanced a series of measures that would give Oklahoma's governor sweeping new powers to choose who runs some of the state’s largest agencies.
The five measures would give Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt the authority to hire, fire and set the salaries of the directors of five state agencies: the Oklahoma Health Care Authority, the Department of Transportation, the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, the Department of Corrections, and the Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs.
It would also eliminate each of the agency’s oversight boards in an effort to consolidate all decision-making into the hands of the top executive.
Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, described the measures as “straightforward and simple.” His Republican caucus members and Stitt are championing them, he said.
Treat said the move would help the public hold the governor accountable if an agency isn’t performing. Right now, unelected board and commission members appoint many agency heads, allowing governors to distance themselves from any controversies, he said.
Critics, though, argued that the move would harm the public’s ability to know what’s happening inside state agencies and comment on critical decisions. They said the state Senate acts as little more than a rubber stamp when governors submit nominees for confirmation.
“Throughout all these bill, even if these boards and commissions are not perfect, they are a method and a way that we release financial information, that we release plans, studies, decisions, problems, challenges to the public,” said state Sen. Julia Kirt, D-Oklahoma City, who opposed the change. “We rely on that process for transparency. I don’t see anything in these bills that allows for ongoing transparency.”
She said the measures would allow the public to find out once year what is happening inside those agencies, and that she’s “deeply concerned about the public not knowing what is going on.”
State Sen. Allison Ikley-Freeman, D-Tulsa, said those five state agencies have operated oversight boards and commissions since they were created.
“Do you know why we decided to have boards?” Freeman asked Treat.
“I assume there was a thought it would give some oversight, a check on runaway power,” Treat responded. He said Oklahoma is among the few states with boards and commissions running the state.
But Ikley-Freeman said those boards and commissions hold public meetings, which help give the public access to policymaking. She said many of Oklahomans are seeking a more “hands-on approach,” and many want to monitor decision-making while it’s occurring — not after the fact.
She said she doesn’t know how the Legislature can balance that desire by eliminating the oversight boards.
Also, Ikley-Freeman said the Senate is tasked with approving the governor’s nominations, but doesn’t take that job seriously. She said it is currently frowned upon to vote against a nominee.
“Does this mean we’re going to be more thorough with our consent unlike our current practices?” she asked.
Treat said the Senate must take the confirmation process much more seriously if the measures become law.
State Sen. Julie Daniels, R-Bartlesville, said the votes represented a “red letter day” for her because it finally places the true responsibility for government where it should be — in the hands of Oklahoma’s elected officials.
“This will actually achieve, I believe, not only more efficiency but more honest, clear-sighted government for all of Oklahoma, which in part will end up saving us precious taxpayer dollars to divert to the core services of government,” she said.