Would consolidating law enforcement improve public safety? (Capitol Updates)

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. You can sign up on his website to receive the Capitol Updates newsletter by email.

Photo by Frankie Leon / CC BY 2.0
Photo by Frankie Leon / CC BY 2.0

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Getting ready for the next legislative session with its budget crater (meaning a real big hole) ideas to meet the demands of the time are streaming from hardworking policymakers. A couple that reached the discussion stage last week were a proposal to consolidate some law enforcement agencies, including the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation (OSBI) with the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (OBNDD) and possibly the Department of Public Safety (DPS) and a tax reform proposal by Rep. Mark McCullough, R-Sapulpa.

Both the Senate and the House are apparently preparing somewhat different proposals to combine OSBI and OBNDD. A spokesman for the governor said she and her Justice Reform Taskforce may propose consolidating OSBI and OBNDD under DPS. Interestingly, the governor directly appoints the DPS commissioner who is confirmed by the Senate while the OSBI and OBNDD directors are selected by commissions appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. Consolidation might create some financial savings, but the questions are always how much are the savings and is the combined operation actually as efficient? Larger organizations often require more middle management.

The better question is, does consolidation give us better law enforcement and public safety? I can remember when OSBI and OBNDD were one agency with two divisions. The divisions fought so much among themselves over priorities and budgets that the legislature and governor separated them into two agencies to keep the peace. I remember vividly as a DA having friends in both camps and hearing the arguments. With some exceptions, the two functions are different and require different methods, skills and interests. OSBI agents usually investigate and solve serious crimes that have already happened. OBNDD agents, usually through infiltrating criminal networks, interdict drug traffickers to take drugs out of circulation and prevent future trafficking. And DPS is quite another kind of law enforcement, primarily traffic safety and a uniformed police presence when needed for protection. Law enforcement consolidation has been proposed repeatedly and may come this year, but if it does it will likely be a shotgun marriage.

Rep. McCullough has proposed a flat income tax of 3 percent, repeal of the corporate income tax, and then replacing the revenue with a sales tax on services. These are longstanding features of tax reform proposals and usually don’t make it out of the starting gate. Most people can find common ground on cutting the income tax, but adding the sales tax to services has been a non-starter. Although it may be a sensible idea because much of economic growth has moved to services, who wants to pay sales tax on legal and accounting fees, financial services, real estate fees, medical, alcohol and drug and mental health treatment, and other services? Some of these can be exempted, but how much can you get from taxing beauty shops and barber shops? Many of these taxes fall on businesses. If they can’t be passed on to the consumer they become another form of income tax for the service provider. These battles have been fought before. But… maybe this will be the year.


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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