(Correction: This article was updated at 4 p.m. Monday, Sept. 25, to correct reference to pay changes for the director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. NonDoc regrets the error).
A new report covering the prior fiscal year shows that seven Oklahoma state agency directors received a salary increase higher than what most Oklahomans earn in a year. Communications professionals representing those agencies and Gov. Kevin Stitt said improving compensation for directors helps attract and retain talented leaders.
A $90,000 pay hike was given to Oklahoma Commissioner of Health Keith Reed, and the position of state Department of Corrections executive director was increased $90,000 during the past fiscal year, according to a report released by the state Office of Management and Enterprise Services.
Reed was among 49 directors to receive pay raises the past fiscal year, with 35 receiving a raise of at least $10,000. Thirteen of those 35 received pay increases that were double that amount or more, according to the Agency Director Salary Increase Report for the 2023-2024 fiscal year.
Five others received pay raises of at least $40,000 a year. The average salary in Oklahoma for 2023 is $39,290, according to Talent.com.
Altogether, the 49 annual raises amounted to $948,485, with the average raise totaling $19,357, or about half of what the average Oklahoman earns in a year.
State employees receive a median annual salary of about $45,000, said Tony Desha, executive director of the Oklahoma Public Employees Association.
“I want the state of Oklahoma to be able to recruit and retain and attract the best employees, and you can see they’re doing that with their administrative leadership,” he said. “And I commend them on hiring the best people to run those agencies. But my thought is that if you want the best people to run those agencies, you also want the best people working in those agencies.”
Desha said the butter should be spread across an agency’s entire slice of bread.
“If you want to spend the money and get your money’s worth, invest that money in your frontline workers and your midlevel staff members and you’ll see a lot better improvements than what you’ll ever see giving that kind of money to top-level leadership,” Desha said.
OMES is required by state law to report agency director salary increases by Sept. 1 to the governor, the Senate president pro tempore and the speaker of the House of Representatives. Agencies are required to report the salary increases, which can be implemented for the current fiscal year and subsequent fiscal year, to OMES by Aug. 1 of each year.
Stitt: ‘Need to have top talent leading our agencies’
Most of the raises in the OMES report took effect during the 2023-2024 fiscal year, which ended June 30. The boost in the DOC executive director’s pay position took effect Oct. 24, 2022, 11 days after Steven Harpe was appointed by the governor to the post. However, a handful of the raises took effect before the start of the 2023 fiscal year and apparently were reported to OMES for the first time for this year’s report. Reed’s salary increase took effect May 9, 2022.
The DOC executive director position was increased 48.6 percent, raising it from $185,000 to $275,000, the same amount Harpe had been paid as state COO and director of OMES. The $90,000 raise increased Reed’s salary 60 percent, boosting his annual pay from $150,000 to $240,000.
Gov. Kevin Stitt appointed Harpe and Reed to their positions. Both were confirmed by the Senate.
The governor said competitive salaries are required to attract and retain agency directors.
“To be a top 10 state, we need to have top talent leading our agencies,” Stitt said in a statement. “To accomplish that, we need competitive salaries. I am proud of what our agency heads have accomplished this year, and because of our efforts to streamline our agencies and make government more efficient, we can make sure that those that serve the people of Oklahoma are compensated competitively.”
In 2018, lawmakers and former Gov. Mary Fallin changed the appointing authority for the commissioner of health position from the State Board of Health to the governor in the wake of a financial scandal at the State Department of Health.
In 2019, the Legislature, at Stitt’s request, granted the governor new powers to directly appoint the leaders of five state agencies who were previously selected by an agency governing board or commission: the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, Office of Juvenile Affairs, Health Care Authority, Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, and Department of Corrections. Those picks must also be confirmed by the Senate.
Kay Thompson, director of communications for ODOC, said Harpe was making $275,000 a year as state COO and director of OMES when Stitt tapped him to be director of corrections.
“He made a lateral move when he became ODOC’s director,” she said.
At the Health Department, Reed’s pay increase became effective after the Senate confirmed him to be commissioner of health, said Erica Rankin-Riley, OSDH’s public information officer.
“Before confirmation occurred, Commissioner Reed was acting in the interim role,” she said in an emailed statement. “The pay structure for agency leaders is established by OMES through statute.”
Reed’s predecessor as commissioner of health, Col. Lance Frye, had a salary of $335,160, she said.
Salary increases defended
Other significant raises in the report were:
- A $65,500 raise to David Adcock, CEO of the Uniform Building Code Commission, a 77.5 percent increase that increased his salary from $84,500 to $150,000 a year;
- A $56,000 raise to Grant Cody, executive director of the Real Estate Commission, a 38.9 percent increase that increased his salary from $144,000 to $200,000;
- A $42,900 raise to Public Safety Commissioner Tim Tipton, a 30 percent increase that increased his salary from $143,000 to $185,900.
- A $40,048 raise to Amber Sharples, executive director of the Oklahoma Arts Council, a 43.7 percent increase that increased her salary from $91,601 to $131,649.
- A $40,000 increase to Trae Rahill, CEO of the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission, a 21.6 percent increase that increased his salary from $185,000 to $225,000.
- A $30,000 raise to Shelley Zumwalt, executive director of the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department, a 12.8 percent increase that increased her salary from $235,000 to $265,000.
Tipton’s compensation increase was part of a 30 percent pay raise that the Legislature approved in 2022 for all state troopers, said Sarah Stewart, Department of Public Safety spokeswoman.
“Commissioner Tipton is a trooper and therefore that raise included his position as well,” she said in a statement.
Tracie Chapman, Oklahoma Arts Council chairperson, said in a statement that the council’s board unanimously approved Sharples’ increased compensation following an extensive year-long review of public and private sector data for state agency directors and comparable arts sector leadership.
“The data clearly concluded that the compensation of executive director of the Oklahoma Arts Council had lagged significantly behind state and arts sector peers for more than a decade,” Chapman said. “To address this deficiency, the board prioritized the adjustment as part of an overall staff retention strategy in order for the agency to continue to be effective in serving an industry that strengthens Oklahoma.”
David Reid, chairperson of the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission, said commissioners gave unanimous approval of an increase in salary to Rahill.
“This was to both reflect his outstanding performance in moving the OESC forward in its strategic objectives as well as to bring the salary closer to similar positions in the private sector,” Reid said in a statement. “We look forward to continued success as Trae, the leadership team and the dedicated staff move the agency further along the strategic plan and serve Oklahoma businesses and citizens even more effectively.”
Chase Horn, director of communications for the Tourism and Recreation Department, said Zumwalt is in her second decade of state service after starting her career as an entry-level budget analyst.
“OTRD is not the first agency Director Zumwalt has stepped up to lead through a crisis, the first being at the helm of OESC while navigating a worldwide pandemic and overseeing the distribution of over $5 billion in unemployment benefits as the head of the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission,” Horn said in an emailed statement. “Director Zumwalt’s current salary reflects her original compensation request when offered the position. At that time, Gov. Stitt countered with a lower salary and milestones for the agency in order to reconsider her original compensation request.
“Working for a results-driven administration, Director Zumwalt gladly accepted the challenge. Since she took the position in October of 2022, Director Zumwalt has worked with her team to reopen all state park restaurants by Memorial Day, has transformed the agency’s approach to the budget process and finances along with other significant initiatives to address issues and make improvements at the agency.”
Stitt named Zumwalt in October to head the Tourism and Recreation Department, which was reeling from an ongoing criminal investigation into a controversial state park restaurant contract with Swadley’s Foggy Bottom Kitchen “due to suspected fraudulent activity and questionable business practices.” Before that, Zumwalt was hired in June 2020 as interim executive director of the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission, which had become overwhelmed using antiquated technology while trying to help thousands of Oklahomans who lost their jobs because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2018, Fallin and the Legislature also made the director of the Tourism and Recreation Department a gubernatorial appointment, a change some leading legislators proposed rolling back this session owing to the Swadley’s scandal.
An agreement to return appointment power to the Tourism and Recreation Commission ultimately stalled in the House this May after the Senate voted down a House bill included in the chambers’ purported budget deal. That bill proposed pay raises for future statewide elected officials and would have tied their salaries to the salaries of judicial positions, but it failed in the Senate by a 13-31 vote.