House Democrats Respond to Health Department Findings

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Contact: State Rep. Steve Kouplen
Phone: (405) 557-7306

OKLAHOMA CITY – House Democrats today expressed concerns that the grand jury findings of the state Health Department indicate the ability and willingness for the Republican Legislature and executive branches to work together to protect core services is more deficient than previously thought.

For the last decade, Republican leadership has called for a stripped-down government, across-the-board cuts, and ever greater control over every aspect of state expenditures – even down to the kinds of office supplies overworked state employees are allowed to use. These findings should clarify to the public that this method of governing ultimately leads to fiscal mismanagement and fear, Democratic leaders said.

The employees of the state Health Department were found completely innocent while the Legislature and the executive branch are refusing to acknowledge their roles in this crisis; a role that has led to continued vilification of the very agencies they are charged to manage.

“Over the last decade, agency budgets have been cut by up to 40 percent due to continued revenue failures, while the state as a whole has seen revenue slashed nearly $800 million since 2009, when adjusted for inflation. Time and again, rather than truly auditing state agencies, the Legislature has employed cuts without deference to service needs and has expected agencies to do the heavy lifting of figuring out how to continue much-needed services for children, the elderly, and the disabled,” said Minority Leader Steve Kouplen, D-Beggs.

In addition to the base defiance of mindfully funding core services, Republican leadership has not taken responsibility for their actions, instead creating an unnecessarily contentious environment. The Grand Jury findings indicate that employees within the department did not have a clear line of communication with each other nor the Legislature in order to openly share information regarding the state of the agency’s finances or their need for investment in technology.

Rep. Matt Meredith, D-Tahlequah, said, “Often, state agencies and even employees are referred to in a disrespectful manner on the House floor. Legislative budget subcommittees have been all but removed from the entire state budget process and are no longer able to spend the necessary time in each area of government to guarantee that things are running smoothly.” Meredith serves on both the Public Safety and Natural Resources and Regulatory Services appropriations and budget subcommittees.

Legislation with a fiscal impact rarely goes through a budgeting committee to insure there are resources available, he said. Only 6 percent of House bills were ever referred to the subcommittees in 2018 and only half of those referred were passed.

Continued ire between the legislative leadership in both chambers and the governor’s office has led to lack of open conversations, and no obvious agreement regarding state priorities, most notably leading to two costly and lengthy special sessions. New layers of bureaucracy, in the form of investigative committees, have been created within the House that serve no other purpose than to shield the legislative leaders from their roles in this fiscal crisis.

“Much like the recent findings regarding the $130 million Republican mismanagement of road and bridge funds, the Health Department has had to do more with less often for fear of losing funding to pay for unnecessary Republican tax cuts, credits, and exemptions,” said Rep. David Perryman, D-Chickasha.

The Democratic Caucus recognizes these findings create an urgent need for legislative action. First, we are urging leadership to address the concerns of the 198 Oklahomans that have lost their jobs due to this debacle and restore full funding to the state auditor’s office, which has been cut by nearly 40 percent, for the purpose of protecting our employees in all agencies from unnecessary distress.

Second, we need to assess the need for investment in the way our state does business. We simply cannot operate efficiently with outdated technology and without providing training and education to our employees.

In addition, we request a full report on the role the Office of Management and Enterprise Services plays within the state financial structure. To say OMES doesn’t know what is going on when it is responsible for the management of millions of taxpayer dollars and the formulation of the governor’s budget proposal is unacceptable.

Lastly, we must work to restore trust and communication between the people, our employees and our institutions if we are going to prevent these crises from happening again.