This much we know from Gov. Kevin Stitt’s second State of the State on Feb. 3: His vision is less about Oklahoma than political power.
Rather than offering a blueprint that invests in Oklahoma’s future, the governor doubled-down on his crusade to become state CEO, the Legislature and the people be damned.
When Stitt claimed in his address that the biggest challenge facing Oklahomans was “bureaucracy,” it seemed, at first blush, in line with the small government Republican belief system that has worked for over a generation to shrink the public sector to a size small enough to drown in a bath tub, even as millions of Americans are drowning right along with it.
However, when paired with his efforts and achievements in 2019 – and his stated goals for the 2020 legislative session that include gutting public employee workplace protections through the sunsetting of the Merit Protection Commission, the merger of two transportation state agencies and his proposal to merge three more state agencies along with every health licensing board – it becomes pretty clear that his goal is not to shrink government at all.
Oh, sure, he proposed adding more to the Rainy Day Fund. And he wants to bolster highway spending. But he revealed no plan to invest in what’s really essential for Oklahoma’s future prosperity: improved common and higher education.
And he’s sure not hiding one aspect of his political agenda: consolidating power by merging various state agencies into super agencies which he controls, thanks to legislative action last year – think: transportation, corrections, juvenile affairs, health care authority and mental health-substance abuse services.
At The Observer, we’ve been mulling this over the past few months, turning over in our heads the idea that this new governor’s “fresh eyes” on state government don’t seem so fresh, after all.
Really, since he was stumping on the campaign trail and throughout his term so far, including at Monday’s State of the State, Stitt mostly recites the tried and true, anti-government, uber-right’s Greatest Hits of the last half-century which can be boiled down to two talking points: Privatization good. Government bad.
New, cutting edge ideas? Nope. Political recycling.
If Stitt gets his way, for example, a colossal health agency would emerge, comprised of a newly united State Department of Health, Oklahoma Health Care Authority and Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.
He also would fold the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority into the Oklahoma Department of Transportation.
The Department of Corrections would assume duties of the Pardon and Parole Board. Emergency Management and Homeland Safety – you guessed it, merged.
“Some will cry that consolidation is disruptive,” the governor said. “Let me be clear: It will be for political insiders and those that find comfort in big bureaucracy.
“But it is what we need to do to improve decision-making, deliver better accountability, and target dollars directly towards helping our citizens instead of paying for administrative bloat.”
Reality check: Stitt’s scheme doesn’t reduce bureaucracy. It just rearranges chairs on the deck. And it threatens to make state agencies less responsive and slower to act.
In fact, by focusing attention on bureaucracy and not his means of acquiring power, Stitt is deploying a clever dog whistle, activating small government Republicans’ well-developed worldview antagonized by the mere mention of social safety nets and public services. It masks his ultimate goal: to consolidate power within the governor’s mansion, at the cost of transparency and accessibility to taxpayers, the very people who pay for – and very much need – the services he plans to continue to underfund.
More to the point: given his professed platforms and legislative goals, “bureaucracy” is not, in fact, a singular pestilence upon Oklahomans, but instead, a strategic code word in his State of the State, symbolizing the checks and balances of the public sector presenting barriers in front of him, blocking his ability to wrest singular CEO-like control and final say regarding taxpayer-funded services and agencies in the state of Oklahoma.
If only, for a moment, he had paused for humility’s sake, and said, “The buck stops with me.”
No such luck. His tact is a far cry from President Truman’s approach to executive accountability. His rhetoric implies no accountability on his behalf for what will become of these agencies and their stakeholders; it only presents increased accountability for state agencies – massive, problematic, fraudulent state agencies that can seemingly be “transformed” in mere months by “fresh” leaders from the private sector, handpicked by Stitt himself.
Think about his proposal to merge three major state health agencies and health licensing boards. Ponder whether it actually decreases bureaucracy, or instead opens up a labyrinthine nightmare to Oklahomans who will need to discern whether they need a birth certificate, a board licensure, or health insurance from this new health “mega agency.”
Currently, the Oklahoma Department of Health oversees the state’s vital statistics and record keeping, epidemiological response, public health operations including vaccinations, as well as the licensing and inspection of everything from hospitals to restaurants. It is the state public health agency. Full stop.
The Oklahoma Health Care Authority is an insurance company at its core, administering the insurance known as Medicaid, which is, again, an insurance company for low income Oklahomans.
The Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services oversees exactly what its title says. And yes, some of the patients who receive mental health services under them use Medicaid as their insurance. But what makes ODMHSAS unique is it runs the facilities and manages the providers directly who service these patients.
The Pharmacy Board? The Medical Licensure Board?
All under the same roof? The same leadership? What leadership? And do we trust this governor to exert due diligence to find a qualified director for this mega-agency, who won’t then exploit the new era of Oklahoma patronage, given the abolition of the Merit Protection Commission?
The image of the decrepit waiting room in the movie Beetlejuice comes to mind when Adam and Barbara first find themselves in the Afterlife. Cold, barren, and eternal.
There’s a reason Oklahoma’s founders set up a system that sought to prevent too much power in too few hands. It’s dangerous. They knew that of which they sought to protect us. Our state was born in the age recovering from the Robber Barons, of presidents assassinated by jilted patrons, and, most importantly, at the emergence of the U.S. labor movement.
Stitt’s ambition to become Oklahoma’s Oz behind the curtain – all consequential decisions emanating from his office, behind a thick curtain of power – is a recipe for disaster.
And what would be the consequence? Well, let’s just say Oklahoma government isn’t a social science experiment. It would have real world consequences and hurt real people.
That’s why – beginning Feb. 17 – The Oklahoma Observer is launching a new half-hour podcast – Observercast – to help make sense of what’s happening to workaday Oklahomans at the hands of the folks at NE 23rd and Lincoln Blvd.
Rather than just write about all that’s transpiring, we believe that after 50-plus years, The Observer’s voice is needed now more than ever. We’ll bring the analysis and perspective that only half a century of commentary on Oklahoma politics can provide, in a medium more approachable and mobile than ever before – the podcast.
Hosts Arnold Hamilton and MaryAnn Martin will explore Oklahoma politics and policymaking in detail, weaving timely analysis of the hottest issues into interviews with key decision-makers.
Watch this space for more details. We promise it won’t be boring – we know after 50 years, nothing in Oklahoma politics ever is.