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Partisan lines drawn on Oklahoma agency proposal

Gov. Kevin Stitt speaks Wednesday during the Oklahoma Association of Realtors Capitol Conference at the Bricktown Events Center in Oklahoma City. [Nate Billings/The Oklahoman]
Gov. Kevin Stitt speaks Wednesday during the Oklahoma Association of Realtors Capitol Conference at the Bricktown Events Center in Oklahoma City. [Nate Billings/The Oklahoman]

Gov. Kevin Stitt on Wednesday accused Democrats of protecting the status quo after the minority party criticized his agency reform proposal, which Republican leaders expressed support for this week.

“This shouldn't be a partisan issue at all, this is about managing state government,” Stitt, a Republican, said about a series of bills that would restructure the boards of five state agencies, while also giving him the authority to hire the agency directors.

In a brief interview with The Oklahoman, Stitt said, “If (Democrats) are going out and trying to immediately attack these things it’s just typical partisan politics, which is frustrating because we are all Oklahomans here.”

Following a Tuesday news conference to announce agreement between House and Senate Republicans over the agency reform proposal, Democratic leaders in both chambers called the plan a power grab by the governor and said it removed transparency. Despite their opposition, Democrats lack enough members in the House and Senate to stop legislation with strong Republican support, which the agency reform bills have.

House Minority Leader Emily Virgin said she doesn’t believe voters want changes made to state boards. Virgin said she and other Democrats met with Stitt on Monday to discuss the proposal.

“The issue for voters was that our state was chronically underfunded in many core services, and no one was telling us we need to give the governor more power to fix things,” Virgin, D-Norman, said.

Agency reform was a central part of Stitt’s campaign, and he has vowed to make agencies more efficient, while also decreasing the amount asked for during the start of annual budget negotiations.

While she supports language in the bills to limit member votes on possible conflicts of interest, Virgin said the current system is working.

The proposed legislation would give the governor five appointments to agency boards, while the Senate and House would each have two. The impacted agencies would be the state Department of Transportation, the Health Care Authority, the Office of Juvenile Affairs, the Department of Corrections, and the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse.

Hiring of the agency director, which currently rests with the state boards, would be up to the governor. The proposal keeps the boards in place but would allow members to be removed at any time.

The five bills, which are split between the House and Senate, were passed by their chamber of origin on Wednesday.

“I’m glad that they kept in place boards because even if it’s a flawed process it’s still a way to bring light to agencies and what they are doing,” said Sen. Julia Kirt, D-Oklahoma City.

“But I have some concerns about at-will appointments (to the boards) because I think that's going to discourage dialogue and members sharing their concerns if they can be removed at any time.”

On Wednesday, Stitt announced he had submitted a request for a state audit of the Health Care Authority and Medicaid enrollment.

“States across the nation have already completed Medicaid audits and found significant savings because of it,” Stitt said in a statement. “I believe this audit will allow us to continue to be transparent and efficient with taxpayer dollars while also ensuring we are providing a safety net for the most vulnerable in Oklahoma.”

Stitt said the audit would determine whether individuals enrolled in Medicaid meet state and federal requirements, and whether the Health Care Authority is removing ineligible people.

Ben Felder

Ben Felder is an investigative reporter for The Oklahoman. A native of Kansas City, Ben has lived in Oklahoma City since 2010 and covered politics, education and local government for the Oklahoma Gazette before joining The Oklahoman in 2016.... Read more ›