OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Republicans gained more than control of legislation when they won majorities in the Oklahoma House and Senate — their influence will be spread through hundreds of appointments to boards, commissions and advisory panels.
A little known fact is how many appointments House and Senate leaders now make to various entities — a total of 601, according to the latest count by the staff of Senate President Pro Tem-designate Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City.
Although the governor still makes a majority of appointments, the Legislature has been expanding its appointment power at a steady rate since the 1980s. Virtually every time a new board is authorized by legislation, House and Senate leaders are given appointment authority.
Some of the appointments are to obscure entities such as the Fire Ant Research and Management Advisory Committee, or the Oklahoma Rock Song Advisory Panel.
Others, however, are to important boards such as the one that oversees the Grand River Dam Authority, which generates and delivers wholesale electricity to 24 counties in northeast Oklahoma, and boards that control the investment of billions of dollars in state pension funds.
The expansion of legislative appointments has been viewed as a power grab by some governors.
Former Republican Gov. Frank Keating sued the Legislature in 1996 to bar legislative appointments to boards that exercise executive decisions, such as where to invest pension funds.
Legislative leaders accused Keating of his own power grab, while the GOP governor said it was an important separation-of-powers issue.
Keating said gubernatorial appointments often face Senate confirmation, but there are no checks on legislative appointments.
The Supreme Court dismissed the lawsuit, however, and the number of legislative appointments has continued to climb.
Former Sen. President Pro Tem Stratton Taylor, a Claremore Democrat, said the philosophy behind having the Legislature make appointments to pension boards is that they hire counselors to invest billions of dollars and “no one person should have the power” to control those boards.
At the time of the Keating lawsuit, legislative leaders defended pension board appointments by noting that former Gov. David Hall went to prison in an extortion-bribery case involving state investments.
Paul Sund, a spokesman for Democratic Gov. Brad Henry, who is at the midpoint of his second term, declined comment on the expansion of legislative appointments.
Coffee said there is “no question” the growing number of appointments has expanded legislative power.
“Oklahoma, by nature, is a populist state — it doesn’t like centralized power,” Coffee said.
“So it fits with a lot of our traditions. I think there is probably an argument to be made for having a strong executive branch, but my job as pro tem is to defend the legislative branch and its authority. We are a coequal branch of government and we need to protect that.”
Both Coffee and House Speaker Chris Benge, R-Tulsa, said the volume of appointments requires them to devote a full-time staffer to researching and vetting possible appointees.
Benge said the GOP-led House has supported downsizing the number of agencies and boards and commissions and he is “confident we will continue to review the number of ABCs in an effort to make government more efficient for the taxpayers of Oklahoma.”
Republicans took control of the Senate for the first time in state history in November when they picked up two seats to break a 24-24 tie with Democrats.
The GOP increased majority in the House to 6