eliminate state agency boards
Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat (R-OKC) listens to a question from Sen. Julia Kirt (D-OKC) during a Senate Rules Committee meeting Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019. (Tres Savage)

Five government reform bills key to the Senate GOP agenda were amended Tuesday evening to eliminate state agency boards. Each bill advanced from the Senate Rules Committee this morning on 11-2 votes along party lines, and combined they represent a primary component of Gov. Kevin Stitt’s policy agenda.

“It makes us feel good, but we haven’t had the results of transparency that we would like to have,” Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat (R-OKC) said of board oversight.

The bills would grant direct appointment authority (with Senate confirmation) for the director of five state agencies:

  • Oklahoma Health Care Authority (SB 456)
  • Oklahoma Department of Transportation (SB 457)
  • Department of Corrections (SB 458)
  • Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (SB 459)
  • Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs (SB 460)

Answering questions from Sen. Julia Kirt (D-OKC) and Sen. Allison Ikley-Freeman (D-Tulsa), Treat referenced a snafu concerning federal funding for Oklahoma’s teaching hospitals that began in 2001 but wasn’t publicly revealed until 2017.

“We had no idea. OU and OSU had no idea. The Health Care Authority knew about it, but there was no knowledge here,” Treat said. “The Health Care Authority has not been all that transparent.”

Kirt and Ikley-Freeman asked a series of questions on each bill, mostly pondering the impact on the eliminating the agency boards.

“Do you know why we decided to have boards?” Ikley-Freeman asked.

Treat replied: “I assume there was a thought that it would give some oversight and some check to runaway power.”

Treat said Senate confirmation of agency directors will need to be more robust and feature more questions if his five proposals become law.

“If we are going to go down this road, we must take confirmation much more seriously and be much more thorough about it,” Treat said. “It’s an extremely important authority vested in the State Senate, and I take it very seriously.”

Treat: Past commission ‘asleep at the wheel’

During questions, Treat and Ikley-Freeman discussed the Oklahoma Department of Human Services Commission, which was eliminated by State Question 765 in 2012. It passed with 59.9 percent of the public vote.

“So we know that the will of the people is in concert with what we are trying to do, at least with the limited experience of DHS,” Treat said, referencing a major civil rights lawsuit that the agency ultimately settled. “We had a federal lawsuit on our hands. If you read the depositions of the commissioners who were sworn to oversee that agency, they acknowledge they were asleep at the wheel.”

Senate Minority Leader Kay Floyd (D-OKC) attended Wednesday’s meeting on the bills while she waited to present her own measure (SJR 20) that would propose modification of the Oklahoma Constitution’s rules about educators holding office.

“This is a major policy shift for a majority that keeps talking about being open and transparent,” Floyd said of Treat’s bills that would eliminate state agency boards.

But Sen. Julie Daniels (R-Bartlesville) expressed a different viewpoint by debating in favor of the fifth bill presented.

“I am absolutely thrilled to be able to participate today in substantive government reform,” Daniels said. “I applaud my governor for not only making this a piece of his campaign platform but for following through with what I think is true transparency and accountability in government.”

Daniels said she previously served on two state boards and commissions.

“In neither case did I ever feel like I was making anything more accountable and transparent,” Daniels said. “In fact, I thought I was part of muddying the waters of where true accountability should be: in elected officials.”

Kirt debated against the measure after Daniels.

“I don’t see anything in these bills that allow for ongoing transparency,” Kirt said. “I’m deeply concerned about the public not knowing what is going on.”

Stitt: House wants boards to remain

Shortly after Treat’s bills advanced, Stitt called a press conference for Wednesday afternoon.

Upon arrival, Stitt announced he would not be taking questions.

“Oklahomans want to know who to hold accountable. It’s time that we give them clear answers,” he said.

Stitt said House Republican leaders informed him that their caucus cannot support Treat’s bills that eliminate the five boards and commissions in question.

“I’m fine with that,” the governor said. “I’m willing to have the boards if board members are at will — they no longer serve staggered terms but instead serve at the pleasure of the current elected leadership. Secondly, I’m OK with boards if there is a provision that defines and prevents conflicts of interest for these appointed board members.”

Stitt emphasized that “agency accountability” is his “No. 1 priority.”

“It’s time we move forward on delivering this compromise,” Stitt said before walking out of the room.

Donelle Harder, deputy secretary of state, spoke with reporters after Stitt’s press conference. Around 3 p.m., she called NonDoc to provide further clarification of Stitt’s preferences on the agency accountability bills.

“For the governor in a perfect world, there are no boards and no (Senate) confirmation. But he is accepting compromise from each side,” Harder said. “He understands that the House needs boards, so long as they are at-will and have no conflict of interest. And he also will support Senate confirmation.”

House Speaker Charles McCall (R-Atoka) authored five versions of the agency reform bills that passed out of a House committee shortly after the Senate moved its vehicles Wednesday. The House’s versions are HB 2479, HB 2480, HB 2481, HB 2482 and HB 2483, which would retain the agency boards and modify appointment numbers to feature two selections from the House, two from the Senate and five from the governor.

“In regards to how they have the boards laid out, so long as the governor continues to have the majority on the board, we would support giving the House and the Senate additional members on the board,” Harder said.

McCall released a statement around 4:15 p.m. touting the House’s version of the bills.

“We have been working closely with the governor, and we believe a mutually agreeable compromise has been reached that allows the governor to be the chief executive of the executive branch and rebalances the appointing authority for agency boards so the Legislature has a stronger check on the agencies that spend taxpayer dollars,” McCall said. “Our plan gives the governor the ability to hire and fire agency directors, it gives the Senate advice and consent and it allows the appointing authority, whether the governor or Legislature, the ability to remove agency board appointees and replace them at any time. We are proud to stand with Governor Stitt on this extremely needed reform.”

(Update: This story was updated at 1:58 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 27, after Gov. Kevin Stitt’s press conference. It was updated again at 3:27 p.m. to include quotes from Harder and information about the House’s set of bills. It was updated a third time at 5:07 p.m. to include McCall’s statement.)

(Correction: This story was updated at 7:20 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 27, to correct reference to the House bills’ provision of appointments.)