With state entities newly prohibited from hiring contract lobbyists, Tulsa Community College created an $85,000 legislative liaison position for 2020 and ultimately hired Alexis Hilbert, the spouse of Rep. Kyle Hilbert, vice chairman of the powerful House Appropriations and Budget Committee.
While some lawmakers have expressed surprise or concern that a registered legislative liaison may end up making policy requests of her spouse, Tulsa Community College President Leigh Goodson said Alexis Hilbert was hired in January “because she is exceptional at what she does and she was a highly qualified candidate” who fits TCC’s culture.
“It was discussed during her hiring process, and we specifically addressed the issue with her before she was hired,” Goodson said. “I am comfortable with her professionalism and ethics.”
Goodson said Alexis Hilbert, 26, was chosen for the state job from nearly 50 applicants, three of whom received a final interview by Goodson herself.
“Her marital status has nothing to do with her job,” Goodson said.
Kyle Hilbert: ‘There is nothing wrong with the arrangement’
In addition to being second in command for the House appropriations committee, Kyle Hilbert (R-Depew) also serves on the House Higher Education and Career Tech Committee, which met Tuesday afternoon. Just before the meeting started, Kyle Hilbert walked past his wife to take a seat.
Neither Hilbert looked at or spoke with the other, and Kyle Hilbert, 25, left during discussion of the meeting’s second bill. He did not return.
The committee’s third and final bill — HB 3255 — proposed a flat reimbursement rate for concurrent enrollment credit hours earned by high school students attending institutions like Tulsa Community College. Authored by committee Chairwoman Jadine Nollan (R-Sand Springs), the bill advanced 9-3 after extensive discussion about costs of and revenue for higher education.
By text message, Kyle Hilbert said he was busy with the annual Future Farmers of America day at the Capitol and did not have time to discuss the situation. Instead, he emailed a statement.
“We should want the most capable people employed by the state, and Alexis is exactly that. Anyone who reviews her resume and talks to her for 10 minutes wouldn’t be surprised at all that she was hired for this job she is extremely qualified to do,” Kyle Hilbert said. “I had nothing to do with her hiring and will have nothing to do with the success I know she will have because she has never needed me to succeed. There is nothing wrong with the arrangement, so we’re not losing any sleep over political people at the Capitol wanting to make issues out of non-issues.”
Alexis Hilbert: ‘We are very careful to draw that line’
Earlier Tuesday, Alexis Hilbert sat through more than an hour’s worth of discussion on bills in the Senate Education Committee. After the meeting, she said Goodson would be handling all TCC interactions regarding appropriations to avoid a conflict of interest between the Hilberts.
“Dr. Goodson handles all conversations with my husband on any specific requests through [the Appropriations and Budget Committee], so I don’t even have conversations with him about it,” Alexis Hilbert said. “We are very careful to draw that line. And honestly, we have a lot of different work going on, so I’ve even been more on the Senate side than on the House just meeting and having conversations with legislators over here.”
Alexis Hilbert, who previously worked as scheduler for Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell, started with TCC in January and said she is “just getting up to speed” on the top legislative issues facing Tulsa Community College this year.
“We are working with other institutions across the state to work on increased funding for higher education, just to make sure we are restoring historic cuts that have been made to institutions and higher ed in general,” she said. “And we’re always watching the guns-on-campus legislation as well.”
Goodson emphasized that all state dollars for colleges and universities flow through the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education before being distributed according to a constitutional formula.
“As a president, I am directly responsible for how we approach that request, which is coordinated at the state regents level,” Goodson said. “That part of our lobbying efforts is my direct responsibility.”
But some House members found the situation notable and potentially problematic.
“I think persons in positions of trust — legislators included, and their families — should be very careful to avoid the appearance of impropriety,” said Rep. David Perryman (D-Chickasha). “An individual who sits in a potentially powerful appropriations and budget position should be very concerned about the appearance of a family member assuming another public position that is funded to a large degree by state appropriations.”
Perryman said higher education appropriations — which rose $28 million last session for the first time in years — will “absolutely” be a major issue for colleges, the House Appropriations and Budget Committee, and its subcommittees this year.
Earlier Tuesday, state leaders learned that the final, certified revenue estimate for next year’s budgetary appropriation is about $94 million lower than the previous December estimate.
“That is a problem that comes up every year — to what degree is higher ed going to be funded?” Perryman said. “That funding level is determined by [the Appropriations and Budget Committee].”
A Republican member of the House agreed to speak about the Hilberts’ job intersection on the condition of anonymity.
“That’s a problem. That’s a conflict,” the GOP lawmaker said. “For the spouse of a member who is vice chairman of the Appropriations and Budget Committee who also sits on [the Higher Education Committee], it just seems like there could be an issue.”
Hilbert disagreed, though his statement did not address the boundaries of his working relationship with his wife.
“Frankly, I’m offended by even being asked a question that insinuates anyone’s wife needs their husband’s help to get a job,” Hilbert said in his statement. “I’m against that outdated worldview, and I am proud of my wife for the success that she had and will continue to have in her career.”
Perryman: ‘We’ve seen similar situations in the past’
Perryman said the topic of who is lobbying whom has been an issue for past iterations of the Oklahoma Legislature.
“We’ve seen similar situations in the past that were problematic where legislators who were chairs of [Appropriations and Budget] have had relatives that were in positions that would benefit through a closeness with [Appropriations and Budget],” Perryman said.
Asked who he was speaking of, Perryman declined to name anyone specifically and called those situations “water under the bridge.”
In the 55th Oklahoma Legislature from 2015 to 2016, Rep. Earl Sears (R-Bartlesville) held the chairmanship of the House Appropriations and Budget Committee. Between 2009 and 2016, Sears’ daughter, Hollye Hunt, was the state regents’ vice chancellor for government affairs. Sears was term-limited out of the Legislature in 2018, and Hunt now works as a registered lobbyist for OU Medicine, Inc.
“In this age where there is virtually no trust that there is anyone who has the best interest of the people in mind, that makes it much more important to avoid the appearance of impropriety,” Perryman said of the current situation. “Right now, there is so much distrust and so much undermining [public trust].”
Rep. Monroe Nichols (D-Tulsa) said he does not want to rush to judgment on how 2020’s liaison-lawmaker situation will play out for the Hilberts. Nichols’ mother retired from Baylor University and now works at TCC as director of diversity and inclusion.
“Just because there’s an appearance of impropriety or conflict doesn’t mean one exists. I don’t know Mrs. Hilbert, but if she was the most qualified candidate in an open hiring process, I don’t think her husband being a legislator should prohibit her from getting a job,” Nichols said. “That being said, we should make it a priority this session or next to create parameters to ensure the highest level of transparency when it comes to this type of situation.”
Nichols said Tulsa Community College is a critical institution for his district.
“If people didn’t have trust in that situation, I wouldn’t blame them. Which is a reason why we need to have clearer rules when a situation like this pops up,” Nichols said. “There should be some sort of regulatory guidance on how you deal with a situation like this. I will say, what’s to stop anybody from doing this? That could become a trend, and a smart trend indeed. But I just don’t want to pre-judge Kyle and his wife to say she shouldn’t be able to do this.”
Stitt executive order spurred new legislative liaison position
Tulsa Community College’s legislative liaison job is new for the roughly 25,000-student institution. Until Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt issued an executive order in 2019 prohibiting state agencies, boards and commissions from hiring private, third-party lobbyists, TCC had contracted with lobbyist Gwendolyn Caldwell for representation at the Capitol. The college paid Caldwell $60,000 annually, while it now pays Alexis Hilbert $85,000 plus benefits.
Stitt to end $1.5 million in state agency lobbying contracts by Tres Savage
Goodson, the two-year college’s president, said Stitt’s prohibition of lobbyist contracts led to discussions about creating a legislative liaison position that will also work with Oklahoma’s federal delegation and in community relations around the Tulsa area.
“I absolutely see it as an opportunity,” Goodson said. We have multiple cities in our service area, and while I believe we do a good job, there is more we can do to make sure the various communities we serve know what we are doing.”
One of those goals for TCC involves the expansion of concurrent enrollment for high school students.
“We were able to successfully get seniors funded last year,” Goodson said. “Our goal is to get the full junior year reimbursed. So that is our first goal related to concurrent enrollment in terms of funding.”
Alexis Hilbert, who in 2018 worked on Todd Lamb’s gubernatorial campaign and Attorney General Mike Hunter’s campaign, said Tulsa Community College is also supportive of creating four-year degree pathways among Tulsa’s mishmashed higher education landscape.
“Dr. Goodson has been working with other institution presidents in the Tulsa area to create pathways,” said Alexis Hilbert, who interned for Congressman Frank Lucas and also has experience in banking. “The Tulsa Transfer Project is one that is really important to help create a single student experience in Tulsa.”
In January, the University of Oklahoma Board of Regents approved the creation of a computer science degree program at OU Tulsa, which is expected to help TCC students earn a four-year degree without leaving Tulsa County.