Sufficient funding for OJA will support Oklahoma families

The Board of Juvenile Affairs approved the FY 2024 budget request for the Office of Juvenile Affairs (OJA) last week for filing with the Office of Management and Enterprise Services (OMES) by Oct. 1. Agency budget requests can be used by the governor to form his budget and are considered by the legislature when it convenes in February to write the state budget. The OJA budget request is a good example of the way state government is working — or not working — under the recent changes in governing structure. 

Under the current scheme, the OJA executive director and a majority of the board are appointed by and serve at the pleasure of the governor. This means the governor and his inner circle, which may or may not include the working-level agency directors and board members, can control the budget request. At the board meeting last week, it was announced the “office of the governor and OMES” directed the agency to submit a flat budget for FY2024. So, that is the request that was passed and will be filed with OMES.

OJA Chief Financial Officer Kevin Clagg and Board Chair Karen Youngblood made it clear, however, the agency has a “wish list” consisting of a $7.8 million increase it would like to ask for “if funding becomes available.” Previously, the board was appointed by the governor for specific terms and the executive director was hired by the board. The governor could exercise influence but not control over the agency budget request and choose whether to include the requests in his budget proposal, which carries some influence. The final state budget will be passed by the legislature.

Gov. Kevin Stitt has made it clear as a chief executive officer he wants to control state government. One must question whether his muzzling of state agency budget requests, insisting that they be flat, helps him accomplish that. After a dozen or so years of budget cuts with only a couple of years to try to play catch up, the governor’s failure to allow his line agencies the opportunity to request what they feel is needed only diminishes his control and effectiveness. This method of operation created a confrontation with the legislature in his second year in office that has limited his influence on the budget since then.

Looking at the OJA budget discussion, it seems likely the legislature will want to hear about the items on the OJA “wish list,” including $600,000 to expand the agency’s specialized community homes; $1.2 million to expand staffing for children’s emergency resource centers; adding an additional person at all the shelters in the state; $3.5 million to increase Level E rates to remain competitive with the Department of Human Services (DHS); and $2.5 million to re-establish community intervention centers. 

Lack of sufficient resources to care for the state’s most troubled youth, who are OJA’s responsibility, simply increases the risk of another generation of family breakdown and increased adult incarceration. Instead of being part of that discussion — earlier with the agency, then with legislators — the governor’s action to squash the budget request simply ignores it. At the end of the legislative session, he may be presented with a budget including all or part of the OJA “wish list.” His options will be to sign it, veto it, or let it become law without his signature, none of which reflect the control he desires.


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.

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