Push to end agencies boards could inject more politics and ideology into state agency operations (Capitol Update)

Steve Lewis

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?


Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

3 thoughts on “Push to end agencies boards could inject more politics and ideology into state agency operations (Capitol Update)

  1. This is a two edged sword. Even at the citizen level it is citizens that are unrelated and put of touch with the issues. For instance, a wealthy man will have no idea of the struggles of the poor man, which leads to drugs and homelessness. The white is not kind nor understanding of the black…which reqches the mental maturation of the governor and iits elect. However, release immunity and ooffer transparency and I am a fan of the elected official WITH votes and swaying verdixts from the citizens. Much like a community house and senate commitee.

  2. As always my friend Steve Lewis is right on. Indeed there are steps to be taken that will improve the services provided by state government. Giving more power to a fellow who hasn’t bothered to vote much more often than once every twenty years is not one of them. Also his inaugural speech was full of platitudes and devoid of specifics.

    I want Governor Stitt to succeed and the best way for him to start his administration is to focus first on what is most important……….investing in Oklahoma’s core services that have been decimated during the two term Fallin failure.

    Then, when he accomplishes that challenge he can move on to tinkering with the state agencies because by that time Gov Stitt will actually know what they do right…….and wrong.

    Seems like a reasonable approach for a gentleman who has proudly never served in a elected position.

    Cal Hobson

  3. Oklahoma’s current populist system not only diffuses authority, but it also diffuses accountability. Citizens are generally unaware of who or what group of people are responsible for state policies. They know the Governor and the legislature, but they don’t know the members of the many boards and commissions who are responsible for state policies. As a result they don’t know who to hold accountable for issues in any particular area of government. Making the Governor the authority and the responsible power allows Oklahoma’s citizens the ability to hold one person accountable for the issues affecting them. If there is a problem in say the Health Department, they know that they should hold the Governor accountable. It allows citizens to better hold the State government as a whole accountable.

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