Oklahoma GOP leaders agree to expand governor’s power

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) – Republican legislative leaders have reached agreement for expanding the governor’s power over agency directors.

The agreement hands new Gov. Kevin Stitt a major policy victory early in the legislative session.

“Oklahomans want three things: accountability, transparency, and results,” said Gov. Stitt. “Elected officials’ hands have been tied in achieving these outcomes, because our current system has given agencies too much independence from the voter. This agency accountability legislation empowers elected officials to deliver stronger oversight, better services, and accountable leadership across five of the largest state agencies. It also serves as a blueprint to pursue reform across all of state government. I appreciate Speaker McCall’s and President Pro Tempore Treat’s leadership in negotiating this critical piece of government reform, and I look forward to working with them to get it enacted into law soon.”

The agency accountability bills include the following provisions:

  • The Governor would have the authority to hire and fire the agency leader.
  • Senate would have confirmation authority of the agency leader.
  • State agencies would maintain governing boards, but board members will serve at will and the legislation will include a conflict of interest provision.
  • The Governor would appoint a majority of the board members, and the House and Senate would gain appointment seats on the boards.
  • The House and Senate would be able to remove agency leaders by achieving a two-third vote in both Chambers.

Flanked by House and Senate leaders, Stitt announced a deal that would give him the ability to hire and fire the directors of five of the state’s largest agencies.

Those are the Department of Transportation, Department of Corrections, Office of Juvenile Affairs, Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, and the Oklahoma Health Care Authority, the state’s Medicaid agency.

“We have been working diligently for many weeks with Gov. Stitt and Senate leadership on these bills, and we believe this plan will greatly improve our state’s governing structure both for now and for the next generation of leaders,” said Speaker McCall. “This has been a shared goal between the House, Senate and the governor, and it accomplishes the framework that we all believed was necessary to achieve real accountability. This plan gives the governor the ability to hire and fire agency directors, and it rebalances the appointing authority to allow the Legislature to actually maintain a check on the boards and agencies that spend taxpayer dollars.”

Under the agreement, the governing boards of those agencies that currently hire and fire the agency directors would remain but have less control.

“Government accountability is essential to changing the trajectory of our state for the better,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Treat. “It’s important for the governor, regardless of his or her political affiliation, to have the ability to hire state agency directors to carry out the vision for which he or she was elected. The system is broken; the system divides the executive branch against itself, which preserves the status quo and stifles innovation and improvement at state agencies. These bills will move Oklahoma forward by giving Governor Stitt the ability to put his team in place to fully carry out his vision for Oklahoma. I have confidence that Governor Stitt will seek talented, qualified candidates to lead these agencies. Checks and balances among the three branches of government are good. The Senate is committed fully to our part in the process by conducting a robust and thorough confirmation process of the agency directors.”

Democrats have criticized the move as a Republican power grab that will lead to political patronage.

“We have reached a point where the term ‘government accountability’ has lost all meaning. By taking away the decision-making power of our boards, we are moving decisions from a venue that falls under the Open Meetings Act and is in view of the public to a venue that is literally behind closed doors and lacking transparency,” House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman, responded. “Additionally, we have had many agency heads that have pushed our state in the right direction in spite of Capitol politics. By removing the oversight ability of the boards, we are creating an environment that will not only allow political patronage but will demand it. This plan isn’t about providing transparency. It is about acquiring power.”

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