Push for agency accountability produces a mixed bag (Capitol Update)

Oklahoma has gone all in on “accountability” for the last several years.  First, it was accountability in common education, which brought us high-stakes student testing, teacher evaluations heavily influenced by student performance, curriculum and lesson plan guidelines, and school report cards.  Those have succeeded mainly in lowering teacher morale and, along with lack of funding, driving teachers either out of the profession or out of state.  Several of the education reforms have now been amended or repealed.
 
Last week the Legislature turned its accountability focus toward state government, with leadership announcing agreement between the House, Senate and the Governor on five bills to reorganize the governance of five larger state agencies.  The agreement resulted in committee substitute bills being filed and expedited through the legislative process.  Although the CEO model of governance has previously been the goal of several, especially in Senate leadership, the movement gained momentum when Governor Stitt announced that his “Oklahoma Turnaround” would begin with accountability, defined mainly as giving him hiring and firing power over state agency directors.
 
The bills are an interesting study in lawmaking, resulting in what can only be called a mixed bag. The governor will appoint the agency directors, subject to Senate confirmation, set their salary, and gain the ability to fire them without cause.  But, in addition, a director can be fired without cause with a two-thirds vote of both chambers of the Legislature.  The agency boards will remain in existence with policymaking and regulatory authority over the agencies.  Each agency board will have nine members, with five appointed by the governor and two each appointed by the House Speaker and Senate President Pro Tempore.  Each appointing authority can remove their appointees at will.
 
Most honest observers of state government would agree that good things can be accomplished with better coordination among agencies.  There are silos within agencies that sometimes prevent efficient coordination of programs with other agencies, with no one at the top who can force the issue. The new system can make it easier for the governor to do that.  It remains to be seen, with big policy changes, whether this mixed bag will work. 
 
Government is about implementing public policies about which strong-minded people often disagree.  It doesn’t take a genius to think of what some of those disagreements could be in the areas of corrections, human services, or roads and bridges.  The system being set up leaves plenty of room for obstruction of the governor’s will, which, depending on who the governor is, may not be all bad.  As far as “accountability” is concerned, it may not be much of an improvement.  
 
The agreement being enacted seems like a “Kumbaya” moment for now.  Everyone gets a piece of the action and what they wanted.  But in this moment, we have a governor in a honeymoon period and on a steep learning curve.  He appears to be a person who will have strong policy opinions once he gets his feet solidly under him.  It will be interesting to see how things work when the power brokers that have been given new powers strongly disagree with each other.  It could be a prescription for “gridlock,” which would be the opposite of “turnaround.”  

And that’s to say nothing about if a time came when the power brokers were not of the same political party. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1991. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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