BY DAVID PERRYMAN
In 1907 the people of Oklahoma chose to establish a form of state government in which directors of agencies were chosen to run those agencies based on qualifications. To accomplish this task, agency board members were likewise appointed based on knowledge, experience and qualifications.
Like most early 20thCentury Americans, Oklahomans did not trust partisan, oligarchical attitudes prevalent in the spoils systems of the era that favored rich and privileged patrons who flourished under those conditions. Consequently, most states moved toward longer ballots and states such as Oklahoma that came into being in that period had both long ballots and weak governors.
In the heavily Democratic Sooner State, Republican Territorial Governors who had been appointed by Republican presidents were suspect, in large part because of interparty GOP strife brought on by scandals, most notably in 1901 during the controversy over the mental sanitarium at Norman under a contract with the territorial government. According to an article by Kenny Brown in the Oklahoma Historical Society Encyclopedia, several party members had shares in the company.
Brown reported that President Theodore Roosevelt dismissed Republican Gov. William Jenkins for his suspected role, but then appointed a couple of other Republican territorial governors in quick succession, including one of whom was Frank Frantz, a long-time friend of the president who had also served as a Rough Rider under Roosevelt.
Fast forward 112 years and now a movement is underway to shift power to Oklahoma’s governor. Proponents say that agency directors are not responsive to the governor and consequently the governor needs the statutory authority to appoint and remove board members without regard to their qualifications or expertise.
Coupled with that power will be the power to appoint and remove agency directors transforming those positions into purely patronage at-will jobs serving at the pleasure of the governor.
Last week HB 2479 [Juvenile Affairs]; HB 2480 [Corrections]; and HB 2483 [Mental Health and Substance Abuse] were heard on the floor of the House of Representatives and passed by large margins along party lines. Last week also saw the passage of HB 1201 amending the procedure for Agency Rules to be adopted.
Coming down the pike on the House calendar are bills having a similar impact on the Fire Marshall Commission [HB 1108]; Health Care Authority [HB 2481]; and Department of Transportation [HB 2482]. The Senate Calendar also contains measures of like intent.
Shifting the power to and from a chief executive is nothing new and is frequently attempted for partisan purposes. Partisan power shifts are directly contrary to the “Rule of Law” that both parties like to espouse. But alarmingly, that is exactly what is happening in a number of states.
In December, then-Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed several bills that were passed by Wisconsin’s GOP-controlled legislature designed to curb the power of incoming Democratic governor Tony Evers. Likewise, in Michigan, in the wake of the election of Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Republicans took steps to shift power away from the new chief executive.
Last June, the Charlotte Observer reported that the Republican Legislature in North Carolina was actively trying to remove statutory power and authority from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. Fortunately, former North Carolina governors, both Republican and Democratic are speaking out about the dangers of the blatant power grab.
Who will speak out in Oklahoma?
– Chickasha Democrat David Perryman represents District 56 in the Oklahoma House and serves as minority floor leader