Mark Lepak

Greetings from the state capitol! I’ve written and spoken often the past few years about the executive branch reforms I believe can result in a more effective and efficient state government. Our Governor devoted significant time in his campaign talking about a 21st century government, improved performance, transparency, accountability, and restructuring to get it done. One of his proposals was to move the authority to appoint and supervise agency directors from their current boards to the Governor. The Speaker of the House and the Pro Tempore of the Senate have both indicated public support for that idea. So why haven’t any bills materialized yet? As is usually the case with big initiatives, the stumbling blocks are in the details. I’ll focus today on what the differences might be among these three leaders who, on the surface, are in agreement.

Most of our largest state agencies are led by directors, who are supervised by boards or commissions. Those boards are, in turn, comprised of appointees. Some boards are appointed solely by the Governor, some have members who are also appointed by either the Speaker of the House or the Senate Pro Tempore, and some have required statutory or constitutional membership (e.g., the State Auditor serves on the Board of Equalization). Some boards are geographical in nature, representing different parts of the state, and others have specific qualifications required (e.g., health care experience). The Governor’s proposal is to allow him to appointment the agency director, and assume the responsibility for the organization, while converting the boards to advisory positions. Pretty clean, right? And it is easy to understand why this model makes sense to an ex-CEO who is used to running his organization with advice from his team. This is pretty much what I proposed last year, and again this year in eight bills addressing our largest and most high profile agencies. My bills have the Senate confirming the appointee. Two of my bills from last year were passed and signed into law, transitioning the Health and Tourism Departments to this model.

But this year, legislative leadership is negotiating with the Governor, and there are subtle, but important, public policy questions emerging. Should the Senate have confirmation authority on all the agency director appointees? Should the configuration of certain boards be changed, perhaps allowing for House and Senate leaders to name some of the appointees on boards where today they have none? Should those appointees serve terms or should their appointments be “at will”, meaning they could be replaced at any time? Should the boards be advisory, or should they retain all of their current authority except the decision to hire/fire the director? Most of these are pretty simple to work out, but I think the “authority” question is the critical sticking point right now, so let’s explore it a bit.

In our federal model, we see a very powerful president (executive), who hires his team to run the government. The Senate confirms his appointments. Congress has the power of the purse, and the House traditionally initiates appropriations to run the government. Both chambers have oversight powers, investigative powers, and a role in the impeachment of the executive. All bills are scored by the Congressional Budget Office, so that everyone works off the same set of numbers. In Oklahoma, there are huge differences, over and above the appointment of the agency director mentioned above. Appropriations bills originate in alternating years between the House and Senate, which have different fiscal staffs, too small to provide proper support. Increased agency oversight by the legislature is coveted, but limited, given a part-time legislature, term limits, small support staffs (some part-time), and other factors. Oklahoma’s model sees executive branch power diffused into unelected (appointed) boards, and the legislature ham-strung by process, time, and resources. The net result is agencies that run themselves via unelected boards whose members often serve terms in excess of the Governor’s. You don’t hear about too many boards running agencies in the federal model.

At this writing, I believe negotiations center on board authority. The Governor wants almost total control over the agencies he wants to run, and legislative leaders, while willing to give him more control, also want a say. They want some board appointments, and for the boards to retain certain authority, like budget approval and rules promulgation.

And let’s not forget that board appointments are coveted positions, often by individuals with a… I hate to say “special” due to the context in which it is often used, so perhaps I should say… “particular” interest, who might like to wield authority and influence, without actually standing for election. In the Health Department, it took a crisis that was, at least, poor oversight, and at worst, fraudulent, for the legislature to react and give the direct appointing authority to the Governor. A few years before that, the Department of Human Services had its own issues, and the legislature reacted.

Of course, other things may be part of a larger bargain. Legislature leaders could want impeachment authority over the agency directors, and certainly want to see the creation of some sort of entity attached to the legislature that would provide professional resources to align budgetary efforts and review agency activity in a transparent manner (think oversight, accountability, and performance improvement). And one could also see other seemingly unrelated topics entering the discussion (e.g., budget priorities or controversial policy measures).

The baby step in between today’s structure and what I originally proposed just might be to leave some authority with the boards. But perhaps we should quit messing around, and bypass the incremental. If we want to be a “Top 10” state, we should be proactive, and start with structurally organizing ourselves in a way that allows better governance. That is a much better path than reacting to crises. Stay tuned.

As always, please drop by the office if you happen to be in Oklahoma City. You can call my office at 405-557-7380, or write to me at Representative Mark Lepak, 2300 N. Lincoln Blvd, Rm. 441, State Capitol Building, Oklahoma City, OK, 73105.

State Rep. Mark Lepak (R-Claremore) can be reached via email at mark.lepak@ okhouse.gov.