Republican leaders of the Oklahoma Legislature have reached an agreement to reform the process of hiring agency directors at five key state departments.
Flanked by more than 70 GOP legislators, Gov. Kevin Stitt joined House Speaker Charles McCall (R-Atoka) and Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat (R-OKC) at a 4 p.m. press conference today to announce the agreement.
“Oklahomans want three things: they want accountability, transparency and they want results,” Stitt said. “I am so excited today to announce a monumental piece of legislation that we have come to an agreement on.”
Stitt said three House bills and two Senate bills will advance to allow him direct hiring and firing authority over the agency directors in question.
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.
Tuesday’s announcement would change much of that and fulfill what Stitt has called his chief legislative priority for 2019. During a press conference last week, the governor urged legislative leaders to work out their differences and find a way to approve his request for expanded appointment power.
“I believe that Oklahomans are tired of the finger-pointing when agencies are under-performing and when their hard-earned tax dollars are being mismanaged,” Stitt said at the time.
Tuesday, Treat said negotiations yielded a workable solution.
“They’ve both been honest brokers at every turn during this negotiation,” Treat said of Stitt and McCall. “We are excited. It is a brand new day in Oklahoma. We will hold agencies accountable.”
Treat had amended his bills last week to eliminate the five agencies’ governing boards altogether, but the boards will be retained, the trio of state leaders said Tuesday.
“I am very excited that this 57th Legislature and our governor of the great state of Oklahoma have come together, and we have come up with a structure that we truly believe puts together a more effective government for the state of Oklahoma,” McCall said. “Currently, the structure does not have accountability. (…) We will maintain checks and balances in the system, which will provide a stable structure for years to come.”
The agreement would restructure appointment for the boards, decreasing gubernatorial appointments to five. The House and Senate would each have two appointments.
House leaders also requested the ability to impeach agency directors through legislative action, something McCall said will be included in the final bills.
“The agency head can be dismissed by the governor or by a two-thirds vote of both the House and the Senate,” McCall said. “The House and the Senate being able to remove the agency heads is a check on the executive.”
“We feel comfortable with the mechanism (for impeachment),” Treat said.
House Minority Leader Emily Virgin (D-Norman) released a statement immediately after Tuesday’s announcement.
“We have reached a point where the term ‘government accountability’ has lost all meaning,” Virgin said. “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.”
Treat’s director of communications, Aaron Cooper, sent a graphic detailing the bill numbers:
(Update: This story was updated at 4:35 p.m. to include comment from Virgin and add the graphic provided by the Senate.)