By Steve Metzer
The Journal Record
OKLAHOMA CITY – Despite continuing strong opposition from Democrats, legislation that would overhaul how major state agencies are organized and operated advanced toward becoming law on Thursday.
While Republicans have demonstrated lockstep support for House Bills 2479, 2480 and 2483, which would give Oklahoma’s governor unprecedented authority to hire and fire leaders of the state Office of Juvenile Affairs, Department of Corrections, and Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, Democrats have banded in opposition.
Members of the Senate Rules Committee voted 10-2 on each measure on Thursday to send the bills for hearings before the entire Senate. That could come as early as Wednesday. Earlier this week, the Senate voted to forward to the House two companion bills (SB 456 and SB 457) that would bring the same major reform to the Oklahoma Health Care Authority and Department of Transportation.
In a meeting with reporters following Thursday’s votes, Senate Minority Leader Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City, described the “sweeping” reform effort both as heavy-handed and not fully enough detailed by GOP proponents. She acknowledged that some agencies, including the Oklahoma Department of Health last year, have in the past been marred by mismanagement, “but that doesn’t justify throwing out an entire system that we think works well,” she said.
Under current law, the five agency heads are hired by separate boards. If the five bills are passed into law, the governor would assume authority to hire and fire the leaders with Senate confirmation. While the agencies would still have boards for oversight, the governor would appoint a majority of board members, with others appointed by the House and Senate. Republican supporters have said that system would include “checks and balances” because the House and Senate would be able to remove agency leaders with a two-thirds vote in both chambers.
However, Floyd said Democrats are very concerned that while boards now are required to include medical, legal and other professionals and other members who meet standards, the Republican bills as they’re written not only significantly loosen standards but also may leave doors open for board members who may bring conflicts of interest with them to meetings. Likewise, she said the bills leave too much room for agency leaders to be hired based more on their political affiliations than on their expertise in running organizations responsible for spending multiple millions of taxpayer dollars.
Additionally, Floyd said Democrats worry that the reforms, touted by Republicans for bringing “accountability and transparency” to the major state agencies, may actually allow their business to be conducted behind closed doors, as the bills don’t make clear that boards or agency heads will have to abide by Open Meetings Act requirements.
Republicans counter that the agencies, and especially their leaders, are far too insulated now to be held properly accountable to Oklahomans.
“The outdated and antiquated system now protects the status quo. Agency directors are only accountable to a board of unelected bureaucrats. It’s time for that to change,” said President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City.
Senator and Legislative Black Caucus Chairman George E. Young Sr. issued a statement in disagreement. He referred specifically to his experience in the past as a commissioner at the Department of Human Services.
“I distinctly remember (that) we, as commissioners, were certainly not autonomous,” he said. “As budget chair, I remember being grilled by the Senate Appropriations Committee regarding every DHS budget. I took my responsibility seriously to oversee and work with the agency director regarding any hiring and firing authority. Now that the commission has been disbanded, I believe DHS is less effective, is negatively impacted by low morale and is generally more difficult to navigate. Undoubtedly, the removal of non-compensated oversight is sorely missed.”
Young said that while he agrees that changes should be made in how the major state agencies are organized and operated, the Republicans’ wrecking ball approach is a mistake.
“We shouldn’t destroy the system while we’re trying to improve it,” he said. “The state will lose more than it gains by giving the governor more authority over the hiring and firing decisions within our largest agencies.”
Added Oklahoma City Democrat Rep. Forrest Bennett in a tweet: “I view it as giving a massive system of political patronage to one person (the governor). Money and connections shouldn’t rule our agencies; experience and merit should.”