By Steve Metzer
The Journal Record
OKLAHOMA CITY – Gov. Kevin Stitt signed five “monumental” pieces of legislation into law on Wednesday that he said will deliver on promises made to Oklahomans who want more effective, accountable and transparent government.
Signed by Stitt at the conclusion of a ceremony held in the Blue Room of the Capitol, the five bills give the governor authority to hire and fire, with Senate confirmation, the heads of five of the largest state agencies: the Office of Juvenile Affairs, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, the Oklahoma Health Care Authority, and the Department of Transportation. The governor also now holds authority to appoint most members of boards that oversee the agencies’ operations and contracts. The House and Senate will appoint other board members and now have power to remove agency leaders with a two-thirds vote in both chambers.
Democrats, who were united in opposition to the bills, have said the measures give the governor too much power, that partisan politics will now rule at state agencies and that business of the agencies will now largely be conducted behind closed doors.
“To throw out an entire system believing that because we had a few bad situations all the agencies aren’t working properly or that the process isn’t working properly didn’t make a lot of sense to us,” Senate Minority Leader Kay Floyd said.
Asked by a reporter if oversight boards will immediately be dissolved, Stitt responded that it’s his goal to appoint new board members by Friday. He said the five agency heads will be allowed to re-interview for their jobs and pledged not to be “heavy-handed” in the process of reorganizing agency leadership.
“Now, we’ll just know that we’re all on the same team,” he said.
The governor said boards will still provide important oversight of agencies, that meetings to conduct business will remain open to the public and that agency heads will still be hired based on their organizational knowledge, expertise and leadership abilities.
“We’re not playing partisan politics at all,” he said.
Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat described Wednesday as a landmark day for Oklahoma, noting the speed at which the bills were able to achieve passage in the Senate and House.
“We obviously prioritized this,” he said. “This is obviously a huge deal for the state of Oklahoma. It’s the most substantive reform since I’ve been at the Capitol.”
House Speaker Charles McCall said the old system of more insulated state agencies resulted in directors and boards “not accountable to anyone – certainly not to the governor or the taxpayers of Oklahoma.
“This historic agreement transforms our government in a way that delivers real accountability for Oklahoma’s citizens,” McCall said.
The five bills signed by Stitt Wednesday include Senate Bills 457 and 458 and House Bills 2479, 2480 and 2483.