Oklahoma voters will be asked in November whether changes should be made in governance of the Department of Human Services, a state agency that has undergone criticism, lawsuits and turmoil.
If approved, State Question 765 would eliminate the nine-member commission currently leading DHS under constitutional authority and replace it with four advisory boards created by legislation last session. Also, Gov. Mary Fallin would be granted the authority to hire and fire the executive director of DHS, a power currently granted to the commission.
Opponents of the measure say it will make DHS, an agency responsible for the welfare of Oklahoma's at-risk children and aging adults, vulnerable to the political whims of lawmakers and governors.
Proponents of the ballot measure, including the Senate author of the legislation, say the change in the state constitution is essential for the continued progress of an agency stymied by scandal in recent years.
DHS has come under considerable legislative and public scrutiny because of the deaths of children in its care. In settlement of a federal class-action lawsuit, the agency is to hire more child welfare workers, recruit more foster parents and move away from caring for abused and neglected children at shelters.
“This Legislature, this governor has decided we don't want excuses,” Sen. Greg Treat said. “We want to take a direct approach and try to impact DHS positively and reform it and change it. If the voters pass 765 they can now legitimately hold us accountable, directly accountable, for the performance or nonperformance of the agency.”
Treat said the existing nine-member commission appointed for nine-year terms originated from a 1936 ballot initiative to qualify the state for federal social services dollars.
He said most other states at that time implemented similar commissions.
“The commission gives a false impression of accountability and governance,” Treat said. “That's really insulated from the political process and that sounds good on the surface until you realize that the people you elect as legislators and or the governor really have very little control over the direction of the agency.”