“Right-size government” has been a common refrain at the Oklahoma Capitol for almost a decade.
But never has the call for consolidation, efficiencies and downsizing been as loud as in recent years with the Republicans soundly in control of state government.
“Over the years the politicians in Oklahoma built a perfect monster,” says Rep. Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie, who leads the House government modernization committee. “It was built, I believe, on patronage, pork and government politics, where jobs were created to reward friends and supporters. Whole agencies even were created just to give important jobs to people.”
Yet data obtained by The Oklahoman shows that during the past two decades, while the state's population has grown by nearly 20 percent, the size of Oklahoma government has declined by 4,600 full-time equivalent positions, or 11 percent.
Studies show the size of Oklahoma's state government still is comparatively larger than most surrounding states.
There are more than 36,000 full-time equivalent employees in about 500 state agencies, boards and commissions.
“The big buzzword when people get elected is smaller government,” said Sterling Zearley, executive director of the Oklahoma Public Employees Association. “What many people don't realize is state employees are responsible for water quality, food quality, protecting our children, veterans and keeping people incarcerated.”
Zearley said he is all for efficiency and better use of taxpayer dollars, but that at the current staffing levels in some state agencies, particularly the state Corrections Department and the Department of Human Services, there is a danger of failing to meet critical services.
“We've really cut in some areas that we need to take another look at,” Zearley said.
Budget cuts and consolidations
The size of state government in Oklahoma has fluctuated through the years with the economy but is smaller than it once was.
It reached a peak of almost 41,000 employees in 1992.
And after two recessions and a recovery, today Oklahoma has the same number of employees in state agencies as in the 1980s.
An average of 36,400 full-time equivalent (FTE) employees worked for the state in 2011, not including common education and higher education employees. It's a drop of about 4,600 employees.
“That's a lot of money we're saving by not having that many people,” Sen. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond, said. “When people say we're growing government in Oklahoma, they're not looking at reality. The reality is we've cut our budget, we're streamlining and our total FTE is down.”
Jolley, who has carried a number of bills consolidating state agencies and has plans for more this year, said part of that decline was out of the necessity of budget cuts, and another part was an effort to better use taxpayer money through consolidations and reductions.
Last session, Jolley and Murphey played a part in eliminating all or parts of six small- to medium-size state agencies.
And in the next seven to nine years, about 130 state agencies will surrender their information technology departments to a central agency handling IT for the entire state.
How others fare
Of the six states contiguous to Oklahoma, the Sooner State has the third-largest government compared to both state population and private sector employment, according to data from the Center for Economic and Management Research at the University of Oklahoma.
A higher percentage of Oklahoma's overall workforce is employed by state government than in Texas, Kansas, Colorado and Missouri. Both New Mexico and Arkansas have a higher percentage of the workforce working for state government than Oklahoma.
But the data shows a steady decline in the size of Oklahoma's government since 1990.