The Journal Record
June 4, 2018
OKLAHOMA CITY – After a major agency financial scandal and years of midnight budget hearings, two of Oklahoma’s gubernatorial candidates have added government transparency to their campaign platforms.
Democratic candidate Drew Edmondson and Republican candidate Kevin Stitt have both offered plans to increase access to government information. Edmondson, a former attorney general, said he would create a new office under the governor’s to promote and aid open government. Stitt, an entrepreneur who owns a nationwide mortgage company, has proposed an interactive platform for residents to examine agency budgets.
Edmondson announced his transparency plan back in November. He would create the Office of Open Government, which would ensure compliance with Oklahoma’s sunshine laws. Those include the Open Meeting Act, which requires most government entities to disclose when they’ll meet and what they’ll talk about in advance, places restrictions on private meetings called executive sessions and bars the agencies from venturing into topics not listed on the meeting’s agenda. The Open Records Act requires most government entities to disclose any records in use unless officials can prove those records fall under a short list of exemptions. The Oklahoma Legislature has exempted itself from those laws.
He said that helping officials understand the laws and mediating disputes before they became lawsuits would be financially prudent and that an open government tends to operate better. To implement that mediation, he said, a deputy general counsel attorney would hire a staff and serve as a kind of ombudsman.
“A lot of times, it’s just going to take a phone call to get that done,” he said. “Our office would be a good one to make that phone call.”
He said that on a smaller scale, the governor’s office needs to maintain a better transparency ethic. For example, he said, Gov. Mary Fallin sought executive privilege to exempt herself from the open records and meeting acts.
“It was a very poor decision on the governor’s part,” he said.
Updating the state’s online access to budget information is part of Stitt’s three-pronged approach to increasing transparency and accountability, campaign manager Donelle Harder said.
Although that information is already technically public in Oklahoma, it can be incredibly difficult to find. Records are spread across dozens of websites, many of which are months or years behind in updates.
Two nationwide policy organizations, Frontier Group and MASSPIRG, partnered to study how well each state maintains transparency in budgeting. The resulting report assigned Oklahoma a D+ grade and named it the 10th worst in the nation. Although the state already has a transparency website, which residents can find at www.data.ok.gov, researchers on the study couldn’t get the website to query requested information or the information was outdated. Researchers said improvements to the system to bring it up to par would cost $8,000 in one-time costs and $5,000 in annual maintenance.
“You can see where they’re cutting checks, and you can get that real-time information online,” Harder said. “This would likely require an update throughout the system for state government.”
She said the issue arose for Stitt because he’s taken a year to step back from his mortgage company and learn about the government he hopes to run. He’s been asking questions about the inner workings of state finance.
“He’s finding out there are not a lot of answers,” Harder said. “They aren’t even understanding their own budgets. That’s really frightening.”
The most public example of that has taken place within the Oklahoma State Department of Health. Last month, investigators found that although top executive officials requested a $30 million bailout and laid off 200 people, none of the emergency measures were necessary. The former regime had implemented confusing and secretive budget practices, such as creating an account that hid state money from lawmakers by disguising it as locked federal cash, and the new regime simply didn’t understand the money was there.
Harder said that events such as these could be fixed if officials and residents were on the same page about what money is coming into and out of state agencies.
“This is clearly where we’re going to have to start if we want to clean up what’s been going on at the state Capitol,” she said.