GOV. Mary Fallin has called for consolidating five state agencies to reduce state expenses. The responses of affected agency personnel include both serious critiques and comments seemingly aimed only at protecting turf.
The governor has called for 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 estimates those changes would reduce associated expenses by 15 percent.
In theory, consolidation usually makes sense. Multiple stand-alone agencies with similar missions ultimately involve duplication, particularly in administration. But consolidation doesn’t always generate the savings envisioned.
When lawmakers voted to consolidate management of state government information technology under the Office of Management and Enterprise Services, proponents thought it would streamline administration and reduce costs. Instead, some smaller agencies saw their IT expenses increase. At larger agencies, the main impact was that IT staffers who previously were department employees instead became employees of OMES. But their offices remained in the same place.
Those larger agencies now pay OMES for IT services the agencies previously controlled directly. Some duplication may have been eliminated, but an additional layer of bureaucracy is now embedded in state government. The verdict is still out on whether this effort truly generated a taxpayer benefit.
Fallin deserves credit for seeking administrative savings in state government, but lawmakers should carefully vet this issue. Ed Fite, administrator of the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission, raises some legitimate concerns. Noting that his commission handles environmental regulations, Fite argues that it’s a poor fit for tourism and would be better placed with an environmental agency. That’s a valid point — although it could be addressed with only a minor tweak to Fallin’s plan.
Officials at several agencies indicated they would have to cut services to achieve projected savings. This isn’t true if savings are generated simply by reducing administrative overhead, eliminating duplicative positions and reaping operational savings through increased economies of scale. However, if officials are required to save more than that amount, then the critics are right and the core mission of the agencies would be affected.
Whether or not all these operations are truly necessary, core functions of government is a debate worth having, but the potential impact shouldn’t be ignored. Still, in this fiscal environment, all five agencies would have likely seen a budget cut anyway; consolidation could therefore help preserve services.
Joel Gavin, marketing and communications director for the Oklahoma Arts Council, says consolidation of his agency would ultimately “undermine Oklahoma’s ability to compete for business and a creative workforce.” The arts play a vital role in economic development. They can help attract businesses. Yet there’s no reason the state can’t provide arts grants and support through a division of the Tourism Department instead of through a stand-alone agency. In fact, the synergies created by consolidation could augment arts promotion efforts while still saving money.
Still, it’s important that lawmakers seriously review Fallin’s consolidation proposal. If the plan doesn’t actually reduce costs, or if it ultimately increases bureaucracy and makes government less responsive, then it doesn’t serve Oklahoma citizens. But if Fallin’s plan allows the state to do the same job for less money — or eliminates unnecessary spending — it deserves support.