Senate confirmation process
Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat (R-OKC) speaks to media Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019, during a press conference broadcast on Facebook. (Tres Savage)

(Correction: This post was updated at 8:50 a.m. Monday, March 4, to correct reference to the appointment process for the five boards discussed. NonDoc regrets the error.)

As the Oklahoma Legislature negotiates how to meet Gov. Kevin Stitt’s request for direct appointment of five key state agency directors, GOP leaders from each chamber publicly emphasize that discussions have been fruitful and disagreements are minor.

But Stitt’s unusual, question-declining press conference last week underscored an inconvenient reality: Reforming government is complicated and can frustrate the impatient. Further, more questions are raised while implementing reform than when simply preaching it on the campaign trail, broom and whatnot.

In specific, onlookers and lawmakers would do well to consider Oklahoma’s Senate confirmation process for gubernatorial appointments as well as how the public and media use board meetings as a chance to access agency officials.

First, some background

Currently, boards and commissions hire and fire the directors of the following five Oklahoma agencies: the Health Care Authority, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Corrections, the Office of Juvenile Affairs and the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

The governor, the speaker of the House and the president pro tempore of the Senate appoint members to the OHCA board, but no Senate confirmation process for those appointees exists. The governor appoints members to the other four boards, which the Senate confirms. The House does not appoint members to those boards.

A successful CEO in the private sector, Stitt made hiring and firing agency directors a key promise in his victorious 2018 campaign. In mid-January, Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat (R-OKC) filed bills to grant Stitt those powers for five key agencies.

House Speaker Charles McCall (R-Atoka) and his team warmed to the idea more slowly. The Senate already holds confirmation authority over gubernatorial appointments, but the House’s influence with the agencies is limited. As such, House GOP leadership had to determine what concessions, if any, would convince them to advance legislation decreasing their oversight influence of the Health Care Authority Board. Democrats in both chambers largely maintained that giving the governor direct appointment authority was a bad idea.

Two steps forward and one step back

Over the past two weeks, legislative leaders seemed close to balancing a deal atop the Capitol’s three-legged stool. Then something gave way.

The Senate released amended versions of Treat’s agency appointment bills at 6 p.m. Tuesday, about 15 hours ahead of its Rules Committee meeting. The new versions moved to eliminate state agency boards for the entities in question, a development that alarmed Democrats, frustrated House Republicans and signaled a deal was not in hand.

Stitt called a press conference.

“My number one priority was to get government accountability in this legislative session,” Stitt said before referencing past legislative efforts. “You can do audits (and) performance metrics. We can do blue-ribbon studies until we are blue in the face. Those things just sit on the shelf and gather dust until you actually do the hard work of managing, delivering accountability, recruiting the best leaders, being able to fire poor performers.”

Stitt left his press conference without answering questions, an indication he primarily sought to pressure whoever he saw obstructing his policy objective.

Legislative leaders, however, appeared to hold their ground. Treat stuck to his position that boards should be eliminated, and House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols (R-OKC) emphasized a desire to create legislative impeachment power over agency directors.

“We’re not willing to do something that, at the end of the day, we think would be detrimental to the citizens of Oklahoma,” Echols said during a Thursday media availability. “It’s very strange that we don’t already have impeachment authority over agency heads.”

Senate confirmation pits collegiality vs. oversight

While presenting his amended bills Wednesday morning, Treat referenced legitimate evidence that several state boards have been “asleep at the wheel” in recent years. He argued that additional emphasis on the Senate confirmation process — questions, debate and a vote on gubernatorial appointments — could ensure checks and balances despite the expanded executive power he was proposing.

“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 Wednesday. “It’s an extremely important authority vested in the State Senate, and I take it very seriously.”

But 24 hours later, a Senate General Government Committee confirmed four of Stitt’s cabinet secretary appointments without questions, discussion or debate, according lawmakers and senior news editor Shawn Ashley.

Ashley asked Treat about the situation during a Thursday media availability, noting that appointee David Ostrowe, cabinet secretary of digital transformation and administration, was traveling with Stitt and not even in attendance.

“That’s unacceptable to me, and I will have to talk to the committee chair,” Treat replied. “I will take care of that internally.”

Treat’s comments about Senate confirmation of gubernatorial appointments should not be taken lightly.

The Legislature’s upper chamber — a dean’s office counterpart to the lower chamber’s frat house — prides itself on collegiality. An appointee’s nomination is usually carried by the senator representing his or her home, regardless of political party, committee membership or intellectual expertise.

Rarely does Senate confirmation yield robust discussion about policy, personality or management style. Casual onlookers would likely deem the process a mere formality, perhaps praising the congeniality of senators or perhaps muttering about establishment yuck-yucking and back-slapping.

Should the Legislature agree to any proposal letting the governor hire and fire agency directors, senators of both parties should be prepared to ask important questions of those tapped for top positions.

Media, public use boards to press agencies for info

Additionally, lawmakers in both chambers will need to step up their oversight of agencies in an ongoing manner, especially if the five boards and commissions in question are eliminated. Media routinely use public board meetings as tangible chances to confront agency directors with questions they would prefer to answer through spokespeople and emailed statements.

Underscoring the enormity of state government, media often learn about agency scandals before politicians. Furthermore, any governor running for re-election is disincentivized against helping expose problems brewing on his or her watch.

So while House, Senate and administration leaders may praise each other publicly, the proposed overhaul of five major state agencies should beg robust public discussion about the vast and diverse impacts of any reform.