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.
It looks like we may be in for a wholesale change in the way state government works in the upcoming session.
During the campaign Governor Stitt made an issue of the so called “weak governor” system in effect in Oklahoma since statehood and proposed putting the power to “hire and fire” agency directors in the hands of a “strong” governor. Legislative leaders have endorsed the idea. Oklahoma became a state during time of populism which, by definition, means distrust of concentrating a lot of power in one person. That culture continued and developed through the years and, as additional agencies were created, the Legislature followed the model of spreading power among citizen boards and commissions appointed by the governor but not under his direct control. In this way we are similar with Texas and some other states.
In 2012, largely because of dissatisfaction with the Department of Human Services, the people approved a legislative referendum repealing the constitutional Commission for Human Services. The dissatisfaction was reaction to a federal lawsuit filed against DHS because of its perceived failure to adequately care for children placed in its custody for their protection. Since then the Director of Human Services has been a direct appointee of the governor. It’s arguable whether the method of employing the director has influenced the performance of DHS one way or the other.
Under our current system agencies like the State Bureau of Investigation, The Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, the Department of Mental Health and Substances Abuse Services, the Office of Juvenile Affairs, the Department of Corrections and dozens of other agencies are managed by directors selected by citizen boards and commissions appointed by the governor (and some partly by legislative leaders) who monitor their performance and determine agency policies. Governors with strong personalities, who wanted to, have usually had plenty of input in the hiring and firing process through their commission appointees and their public bully pulpit when necessary, but that’s not the same as a direct line of command.
I think there will be a sea change in Oklahoma government with some unexpected results. There’s little doubt, with one boss at the top of the heap, with direct line authority, government could operate more efficiently. It can be less messy with decisions coming quickly. Whether the decisions are good ones, and the state is better off, will depend more than ever on who the governor is.
One result of the board and commission form of government is that it has operated largely outside the influence of political ideology. Agency directors committed to the services their agency provides will be subject directly to wishes of the governor, or possibly some underling in the governor’s office. Those wishes may be heavily influenced by politics or ideology. And legislators? Well, they may find themselves dealing with that same underling instead of with the agency director as they do now.
One could argue the merits of either system, strong governor or weak governor. Since we have zero experience with Governor Stitt, or the other governors in our future, ask yourself this: Would it be a good thing for the people of the state if Governor Fallin had been in direct control of all the agencies of state government for the past 8 years?