Are Oklahoma voters being asked to do away with the Department of Human Services in a referendum this November? This was not the intent of legislators in sending State Question 765 to a popular vote, but ambiguities in the legislation and ballot title language make it appear as if the Department itself could be abolished if voters approve SQ 765.
SQ 765 emerged in the wake of the state’s negotiated settlement of the child welfare lawsuit against the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (DHS). The settlement involved a series of sweeping reforms to improve the child welfare system, which have been incorporated into the agency’s Pinnacle Plan. Although the settlement did not directly mandate changes in agency governance, the long-standing deficiencies in the child welfare system brought to light by the lawsuit suggested, in the words of House Speaker Kris Steele, that “the system has been struggling under an outdated, ineffective governance model that has tended to isolate the agency from any real accountability.”
DHS’ current governance model dates back to the 1930s. Article XXV of the Oklahoma Constitution created the Department of Public Welfare (now the Department of Human Services) and placed it under the control of a 9-member Oklahoma Public Welfare Commission (now the DHS Commission), which has the authority to appoint the agency Director. Under bills passed this session, HJR 1092 and HB 3137, the DHS Commission would be abolished and the DHS Director would be appointed by the Governor, subject to Senate confirmation, and serve at her discretion. In lieu of a governing Commission, four citizen advisory panels, each composed of five members to be appointed by the Governor and legislative leaders, would be created to provide input in the areas of children and family issues, aging issues, disability issues, and administration.
Because the change in DHS governance involves a change in the constitution, it requires voter approval. HJR 1092 sends to a vote of the people a measure to repeal the constitutional provisions creating DHS (Article XXV, Section 2) and its commission (Article XXV, Section 3) administered by a Director appointed by the commission (Article XXV, Section 4). It adds a new section to the constitution granting the legislature the authority to create an agency to provide for the care of the aged and the needy (Article XXV, Section 6). Concurrently with HJR 1092, HB 3137 gives the Governor the authority to appoint the DHS Director, specifies the Director’s responsibilities, and creates the advisory committees. It does not, however, formally create or recreate the Department of Human Services.
In preparing the measure to go on the November ballot, Attorney General Scott Pruitt rewrote the ballot title that will accompany SQ 765. The language reads:
The measure amends the Oklahoma Constitution. It abolishes the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, the Oklahoma Commission of Human Services and the position of Director of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services. These entities were created under different names by Sections 2, 3 and 4 of Article 25 of the Oklahoma Constitution and given duties and responsibilities related to the care of the aged and needy…
The measure adds a provision to the Constitution authorizing the Legislature to create a department or departments to administer and carry out laws to provide for the care of the aged and the needy. The measure also authorizes the Legislature to enact laws requiring the newly-created department or departments to perform other duties.
From the ballot title, a voter would know that SQ 765 does away with DHS as currently structured and gives the Legislature authority to create an agency to perform the functions carried out by DHS, but would not know that the Legislature had also enacted HB 3137 to transfer the Commission’s powers to the Governor. Speaker Steele wrote the Attorney General requesting that “the ballot title include language addressing the passage of HB 3137, which reconstituted the Department of Human Services in statute.” The AG rejected the request, contending that “(t)he specific language in HB 3137 is not part of the constitutional amendment and is subject to change by this Legislature or subsequent Legislatures.”
The end result is that voters will be asked to “abolish the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, the Oklahoma Commission of Human Services and the position of Director of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services”, without any clear sense of what they are being replaced with. Meanwhile, the Legislature’s decision to repeal the constitutional provision that created the Department of Human Services without replacing it with specific statutory language recreating the Department leaves some doubt about the Department’s status should SQ 765 pass. Whatever the merits of the change in governance structure, the choice being presented to voters creates an unfortunate level of confusion and uncertainty.
For more information on SQ 765 and the other 2012 ballot measures, please visit to our 2012 State Questions resources page