Are Oklahomans better served by state agencies that preserve their independence or that are more directly subject to the Governor’s control? That’s the key question for Oklahoma legislators this session as they consider a series of bills that would fundamentally alter the appointment and governing authority for some of the state’s largest agencies.
Currently, most major agencies are governed by boards or commissions, with the Governor, Speaker of the House of Representatives, and President Pro Tem of the Senate sharing appointment authority for board members. These boards have the authority to appoint and dismiss agency directors, as well as adopt the formal rules governing the agency’s operations, subject to review by the Governor and Legislature.
A series of bills have been introduced this session that would transfer the power to appoint and dismiss the directors of seven agencies from boards to the Governor, with appointments subject to Senate confirmation. The bills would make these agency boards advisory only. The changes would apply to the Oklahoma Health Care Authority (HB 2934), Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (HB 2822), Office of Juvenile Affairs (HB 2821), Department of Health (HB 3036) Department of Corrections (HB 3209), Department of Agriculture (HB 2820), and Department of Tourism and Recreation (HB 3603).
As of March 7th, these bills have all passed House committees and are awaiting floor action. The bill to grant the Governor appointment authority for the Commissioner of Health failed on the House floor but could be brought back up for reconsideration. A Senate bill that would have given the Governor appointment authority for four health agencies, SB 1248, was defeated in committee. (An omnibus bill covering all seven agencies, HB 1027xx, was introduced in special session as part of the Step Up package of government reforms; while that bill remains on the House agenda, it seems unlikely to move forward).
Supporters of investing the Governor with greater appointment authority argue that the Governor, as the head of the Executive branch, should have the authority to determine the leadership of agencies so as to align the state’s priorities and lead the state in a unified direction. They point to the federal government and to many other states where the President or Governor can appoint and remove the heads of most agencies (click here for detailed information on agency appointment authority in all states).
Opponents of these changes are concerned that granting the Governor appointment authority will politicize the leadership of state agencies and make directors overly responsive to the political interests of the Governor, which may not always align with the agency’s mission. Governors may be more likely to select unqualified individuals or purely political appointees; while their choices would be subject to Senate confirmation, it may be rare for the Senate to oppose a nominee, especially when the Governor is of the same party as the Senate majority. Experience in other states suggests that where agency directors are Governor appointees, there is much more rapid turnover of agency leadership, which means a loss of experience and expertise.
There is also good reason for concern that these bills strip away from boards a set of important functions that allow for oversight, accountability, and public involvement. Currently, boards review and approve agency rules and budgets. They meet regularly in public, giving stakeholders whose lives are directly affected by agency decisions a chance to stay informed and provide input through open meetings and public comment periods. All this is called into question by this session’s bills, which deprive agency boards of all formal duties and powers and do not even require them to meet.
The experience of the Department of Human Services offers a cautionary tale of what happens when governing boards are eliminated. In 2012, Oklahoma voters approved State Question 765, which abolished the DHS Commission and replaced it with four citizen-advisory panels as a means to ensure stakeholder input. As a trio of advocates for Oklahomans with disabilities wrote in a recent blog post:
Committed citizen panel members developed achievable recommendations and DHS leadership endorsed most of these. Yet, virtually none of these changes were implemented and panels were dissolved within a matter of a few years.
Based on the DHS precedent, these advocates, and many others, have expressed alarm that the proposed changes would deny them representation and participation.
The fact is, Oklahoma has been well served by the current system of agency leadership and governance. Most of our agencies are led by strong directors and capable boards. While there certainly have been notable and egregious instances of agency mismanagement, such as with the State Department of Health, it’s not clear how the changes being considered would prevent these kinds of situations – if anything, by weakening agency boards, they make effective oversight and accountability less likely.
Unless a much stronger case can be made for how Oklahoma would be better served by expanding the Governor’s power, the Legislature would be well advised to leave the current system in place.