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.
Officials with the Oklahoma Arts Council said the governor's proposed move would hurt arts in the state.
“The governor's proposal to consolidate the Oklahoma Arts Council with the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department would result in a net loss for the people of Oklahoma,” the Arts Council said in a response released by Joel Gavin, the agency's marketing and communications director. “Consolidation would erode services to the state's arts and cultural industry and undermine Oklahoma's ability to compete for business and a creative workforce.”
A 15 percent cut the first year “would result in significant cuts in grants to nonprofits, schools, libraries and local and tribal governments,” the response stated.
Wayne McCombs, executive director of the J.M. Davis Arms and Historical Museum in Claremore, said if the goal of consolidation is saving money, consolidating his agency would be a mistake.
“There wouldn't be any cost savings at all,” he predicted, adding it would probably cost more if officials have to travel to Oklahoma City more to attend meetings.
Steve Gragert, executive director of the Will Rogers Memorial Commission, said he has been trying to find out what study the governor was relying on in making her recommendation.
“We were not consulted,” he said, adding that legislators he has talked with weren't consulted either.
“The missions don't quite jive,” he said, adding that the Will Rogers Memorial Commission is more of an educational organization than a tourism organization, even though the memorial is a tourism destination.
Supporting the mission
Weintz contends the agency directors are looking at the consolidation proposal wrong and the governor is not trying to hurt the agencies.
“If someone were to ask us about the arts, one of the reasons we think the Arts Council should be consolidated into the Department of Tourism is because the governor supports the Arts Council and its mission,” Weintz said.
“Every year, there are legislators who push very hard to have the Arts Council eliminated and defunded because they don't consider it a priority. Eventually, that will happen unless it finds a home in a larger agency like the Department of Tourism.”
“It's not a new idea,” he said of consolidation.
“We know what the benefits are. When a smaller agency is consolidated into a larger agency they can save on back office expenses like human resources, supplies and office space and things like that.”
In times of tight budgets, it is difficult for agencies with small budgets to compete for funds with larger agencies, he said.
“During the budgeting process, when appropriators are weighing various priorities like education and public safety, sometimes the smaller agencies … can get left out of the conversation,” he said.
“By consolidating an agency like that into a larger one like Tourism, we can ensure that it gets funded and we're still continuing to pursue those agencies' missions.”