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Stitt achieves power boost early in his term

Just nine weeks into his first term, Gov. Kevin Stitt achieved his central policy objective, becoming the most powerful governor in modern state history after the Republican-controlled Legislature gave him indirect control over five state agencies.

That power shift puts Oklahoma more in line with most other states, Stitt said, but will significantly change not just how state agencies operate, but the role of agency directors.

“This is going to change the way that we run state government for the next 50 years,” Stitt, a Republican, told The Oklahoman.

On Wednesday, Stitt signed five bills that allow him to hire the director for the Department of Transportation; the Department of Corrections; the Office of Juvenile Affairs; the Oklahoma Health Care Authority; and the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

“This really takes away a state agency (director) being able to have their own agenda,” said Michael Crespin, a professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma.

In the past, directors have led their agency in making budget requests greater than what is expected to be approved by the Legislature, often to draw attention to specific issues and problems.

“But the agenda for directors will now become the same as the governor,” Crespin said.

Stitt has already vowed to make agency budget requests lower next year.

The fact that he can now remove those directors at-will essentially assures he can honor that pledge.

“You had these different agencies that were building their little kingdoms and didn’t want anything to change,” Stitt said. "When you tried to change it, the agencies could hire lobbyists, so I put a stop to that. They could kind of spin everyone in a circle.”

Stitt has already assembled a cabinet that has made a point to dig into state agency operations with a focus on efficiency and cutting waste.

The agency directors Stitt hires are expected to continue that focus, although not necessarily with immediate change.

“The governor is not coming in with some long-term political agenda and he is not just coming into state agencies with a wrecking ball,” said Donelle Harder, Stitt’s spokeswoman. “He wants to come in here more with a scalpel. He wants to be strategic and see what makes sense and see what can set up these agencies for success.”

Democrats, who are a minority in both the House and Senate, opposed the agency restructuring bills.

House Minority Leader Emily Virgin said the change reduces accountability and weakens the Legislature's role as a check on the process.

Senate Democratic Leader Kay Floyd said important decisions would be removed from the open-meeting process.

“Agency directors would be able to make decisions behind closed doors with no public accountability,” said Floyd, D-Oklahoma City.

Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat said he supported the change before Stitt was elected.

“I would have wanted to see this even if Drew Edmondson were elected,” said Treat, R-Oklahoma City, referring to Stitt’s Democratic opponent in the election.

Crespin, the political professor at OU, said because Stitt is coming off a large election win it made it easier for the Republican-controlled Legislature to grant him more powers.

“The fact that (Stitt) talked about this on the campaign and won makes it look like people wanted this, so it’s an easy thing for the Legislature to do,” Crespin said.

Stitt said the expanded powers give him a chance to deliver on many of his campaign promises to cut waste, increase digital services and focus on some of the state’s largest challenges.

“Now that we’ve got this we’ve got to show Oklahomans what this means and get these agencies turned around,” Stitt said. “It’s a huge win.”

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<strong>Gov. Kevin Stitt</strong>

Gov. Kevin Stitt

<figure><img src="//" alt="Photo - Gov. Kevin Stitt " title=" Gov. Kevin Stitt "><figcaption> Gov. Kevin Stitt </figcaption></figure>
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 ›