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Fallin's speech leaves 5 agency heads stunned and perplexed

The directors of five state agencies say they were stunned and perplexed when Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin recommended in her State of the State speech that their agencies be consolidated into the Oklahoma Department of Tourism and Recreation.
by Randy Ellis Published: February 10, 2014

The directors of five state agencies say they were stunned and perplexed when Gov. Mary Fallin recommended in her State of the State speech that their agencies be consolidated into the Oklahoma Department of Tourism and Recreation.

The governor neither consulted with them nor gave them a heads up about her intentions, they said.

The head of tourism wasn't consulted, either, said a spokeswoman for that agency.

“We did not know about the proposed consolidation until we saw the governor's executive budget,” said spokeswoman Leslie Blair. “This is not a request from the Tourism Department, but we will do what the governor and the Legislature direct us to do.”

In the governor's State of the State speech, she recommended consolidating the Oklahoma Arts Council, J.M. Davis Memorial Commission, Oklahoma Historical Society, Will Rogers Memorial Commission and Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission into the Tourism Department. She projected a 15 percent cost savings from the move.

Alex Weintz, spokesman for the Fallin, said the governor's lack of consultation with impacted agencies is not a bad thing.

“The executive budget is the start of a conversation about the way we want government to look and function and how much we want to spend on it,” Weintz said. “This is what the governor's vision is and it's the start of a conversation we're going to have with legislators and also with these agencies and their directors.”

The next five months will be spent working with the Legislature to see what happens next, he said.

Agency officials were skeptical of the proposal's merits.

Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society, said the governor's proposal caught him by surprise and will require him to shift his focus from fundraising to preparing for possible program cuts.

“We're pretty lean,” Blackburn said, adding that he expects consolidation would result in a $2 million loss to the Historical Society.

“We're going to look at: What are our programs? How many would we have to cut to get to $2 million out of our $12 million budget?”

Ed Fite, administrator of the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission, described the governor's recommendation as “a complete surprise” and “confusing.”

Fite said the Tourism Department had provided administrative services for his agency for years, but late last year the Tourism Department's deputy director decided to terminate that relationship.

“Since that time, we've been pouring a lot of time and effort and use of what precious resources we have, partnering with the Office of Management and Enterprise Services to transfer all these shared administrative services to them,” Fite said.

“When Governor Fallin announced in her budget on Monday that she was advocating that we go back under Tourism, it was confusing because we were literally just days away from completing the transfer of all that work that Tourism has provided to us in the past over to OMES.”

Fite said the Scenic Rivers Commission is more of an environmental agency than a tourism agency and has spent the lion's share of its time fighting for improved water quality.

He said he believes the commission should be a stand alone agency and doesn't believe consolidation would save much money.

“If consolidation is a must, I think if one looks at the goals and objectives mandated in the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Act, probably a better fit would be if we were placed as a division within the Oklahoma Conservation Commission, the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation or the Department of Environmental Quality, rather than Tourism,” he said.

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by Randy Ellis
Investigative Reporter
For the past 30 years, staff writer Randy Ellis has exposed public corruption and government mismanagement in news articles. Ellis has investigated problems in Oklahoma's higher education institutions and wrote stories that ultimately led to two...
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