Passage of State Question 765 next week would not abolish the state's largest agency, supporters of the measure said Friday.
SQ 765 would repeal three sections of the state constitution and add another, essentially eliminating the Oklahoma Human Services Commission, which has authority over the Department of Human Services. Legislation passed earlier this year would give the governor the authority to hire or fire the state DHS director, but that language is not included on the ballot proposal.
The way the ballot is worded, voters may think the proposal does away with DHS, but that's not the case, said Rep. Jason Nelson. He is author of House Bill 3137, which among other things would put the agency's director under the governor's control and would create four citizen advisory panels that would replace the nine-member DHS Commission.
“That would be an amazing thing indeed, if that were true,” said Nelson, R-Oklahoma City. “You've got 7,200 employees, you've got probably close to 10,000 people receiving some form of disability services, you've got 9,100 kids in state custody, tens of thousands of peoples receiving food stamps and other assistance. It's inconceivable that DHS would be shut down.”
In addition to HB 3137, lawmakers this year also passed House Joint Resolution 1092, which became SQ 765 on Tuesday's ballot. The change in how DHS is governed involves a change in the state constitution, which requires voter approval. SQ 765 would repeal the Commission for Public Welfare, which was approved by voters in 1936 to oversee DHS. The commission has nine members, each appointed to a nine-year term.
However, in preparing the measure to go on the ballot, the state attorney general's office rewrote it to state that the measure “abolishes the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, the Oklahoma Commission of Human Services and the position of director of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services.”
Nelson provided a letter from Senior Assistant Attorney General Sandra Rinehart, who said the passage of HB 3137 was not mentioned in the ballot title because the ballot title's purpose is to explain the effect of the proposed measure, not the effect of legislation not included in the measure.
“We recognize that, in anticipation of the passage of the constitutional proposal, the Legislature enacted HB 3137,” Rinehart wrote. “As these statutory provisions are not a part of the proposed constitutional measure, an explanation of their effect could not be included in the final ballot title.”
David Blatt, director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, which promotes fair funding of state government services, said backers of SQ 765 have reason to be concerned. From reading it, voters would know the ballot title would do away with DHS as it's currently structured and would give the Legislature authority to create an agency to perform its functions, but voters wouldn't know lawmakers had passed HB 3137, he said
“The way that the question was written really does create confusion and uncertainty,” he said.
Nelson said polls taken a month ago showed that 27 percent of voters were undecided on SQ 765, which could be due to confusion over the ballot wording.
Nelson led a four-member House of Representatives panel that spent several months talking with hundreds of agency workers, parents, judges and others who work with the agency to develop changes. Many agreed the DHS Commission needs to change, he said.
If voters approve SQ 765, then House Bill 3137 would take effect and would require the DHS director to be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. The DHS commission now hires the director.
“What you have now is a commission that isn't elected, it's unaccountable and it insisted on remaining uninformed for years about child death cases and other issues and you've had the public and elected officials frustrated,” Nelson said. “We're asking the public to make the biggest reform of all to DHS and that is give their elected officials the ability to make changes to the agency.”
The commission, with six of the nine members appointed by Gov. Mary Fallin, last month hired Ed Lake as the agency's director. Nelson said Fallin intends to keep him on as director if the ballot measure is approved.
HB 3137 also would establish four citizen advisory panels that would oversee DHS operations and administration. The panels, made up of five members each appointed by the governor and legislative leaders, would look at four separate areas — children and family issues, developmental issues, aging issues and the agency's administration.
“So now you can focus more attention on each area,” Nelson said.