Lobbyists, citizen advocates and legislators gather in the Oklahoma House of Representatives' lobby Tuesday, March 12, 2019. (Tres Savage)

Nine days ahead of a March 29 deadline, more than 100 state entities have yet to respond to Gov. Kevin Stitt’s executive order seeking comprehensive information about contract lobbyists hired by Oklahoma agencies, boards and commissions.

Stitt issued the executive order in January, which also prohibited state departments from creating or renewing lobbyist contracts for the remainder of FY 2019, which ends June 30. The executive order requires reports to include comprehensive overviews and fiscal costs for each year from 2015 through 2019, as well as details of how the entity chooses contract lobbyists.

Tuesday, Stitt’s office said 74 agencies, boards and commissions had complied with the executive order. A list of entities that have responded appears below, but almost 120 of Oklahoma’s more than 190 ABC’s have not responded.

“That’s just emblematic of the lack of respect that they show to the chief executive, and I would encourage them strongly to participate,” Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat (R-OKC) said. “I think it points to the fact that the governor in the state of Oklahoma doesn’t truly have control over the executive branch, and that’s what we’re fighting to make sure.”

Asked about the situation earlier in March, Stitt said his cabinet secretaries had pushed out a reminder to all entities under their oversight.

“Those are agencies that are supposed to comply with that. If they don’t, this is another reason why our structure is wrong,” Stitt said. “This is what happens. These are the games that are played. They try to keep their lobbyists, they try to do this or they try to do that. They are trying to protect a little silo as opposed to working for what is best for all of Oklahoma. That’s why we’ve reminded them.”

Since assuming office in January, Stitt has pushed for and received enhanced authority over state agencies while simultaneously familiarizing himself with an expansive state government. The governor has said he wants to accumulate the information about hired lobbyists to increase transparency for Oklahomans.

“When an executive order gives them 60 days, I know it’s human nature sometimes to procrastinate and get it in on the last week,” Stitt said. “But we’ve already reminded them a second time. We are not joking.”

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Virgin: ‘Crucial’ for small entities to have Capitol presence

House Minority Leader Emily Virgin (D-Norman) said the “demonizing” of state entities that hire lobbyists or liaisons “doesn’t make sense.”

“I guess it’s a good political talking point, but I haven’t seen abuse of that,” Virgin said. “They’re talking about changes that need to be made to make sure that the population that they regulate or that they serve is well-regulated.”

Virgin noted that most boards and commissions are smaller, feature limited staff and do not receive appropriations from the Legislature.

“So they are operating off of fees, usually from industries that they regulate,” she said. “But it’s crucial that some of these agencies and entities have a presence at the Capitol to make sure they know what is going on. That’s not something that everyone is capable of doing. It makes sense to get someone who is experienced to come out here and watch what is going on.”

Lobbyists at the Capitol tend to push back on the idea that they are simply hired guns, paid to squeeze money out of the state’s pot. Many argue they are deciphering a complex and fluid process of regulation and oversight, even if hired by a state entity.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a registered lobbyist who has been employed by state entities expanded on Virgin’s point.

“Take a professional licensing board as an example. They are constantly updating statute and rules to be in step with nationwide practices. These efforts can be tedious, and having an expert navigate through the process is vital to these agencies being able to modernize their laws,” the lobbyist said. “How a bill becomes law can be as complicated as navigating the legal system. Nobody would advise doing that without an attorney.”

The same lobbyist, who has been employed by state entities, estimated Stitt’s motivation.

“I think the governor has a concern that agencies may be hiring lobbyists to fight some of his government modernization efforts. If true, that is a legitimate concern and one that should be addressed with the agency director,” the lobbyist said. “My concern is that casting a wide net will have unintended consequences. There are smaller boards and agencies that do not have the resources to hire full-time internal legislative liaisons. Those entities will be harmed the most.”

Lobbyists and state agency legislative liaisons register with the Oklahoma Ethics Commission, which lists lobbyist principals on its Guardian system.

McCall on Stitt: ‘He’s very open minded’

House Speaker Charles McCall (R-Atoka) said the governor is the CEO of Oklahoma’s executive branch and that the covered entities should respond to the executive order by March 29.

“I think the agencies should be communicating with the governor, and quite honestly I think the governor wants to work with the agencies,” McCall said. “He’s a new governor, and he wants to get to the bottom of some things. But I also think he’s very open minded about things and not predisposed to a certain belief.”

Rep. Mike Osburn (R-Edmond) is chairman of the House Government Efficiency Committee and praised Stitt’s effort.

“I think it’s important what he is doing with the executive order just so we can kind of gather all the information and get a handle on it because hiring contract lobbyists for some agencies has been the practice for years and years,” Osburn said.

Osburn agreed with Virgin that small, non-appropriated entities “need some sort of representation.”

“I think we need to be careful when we start saying that people can’t have this and people can’t have that so that we aren’t taking voices away from the table,” Osburn said. “So I’m hopeful that when he gets that information back we can all sit down and say, ‘This is the direction that we need to head in the future.’

“I don’t know whether the current system is exactly the way that should go or not. Hopefully we will find out when we get the information back to the governor.”

Gov. Kevin Stitt’s executive order on agency lobbyists

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