Good Government

Change We Can Believe In

October 5, 2008

Patrick B. McGuigan

Recently, Oklahoma City University law professor Andrew Spiropoulos announced the launch of an OCPA-backed effort to study Oklahoma's ultra-populist constitution (see page 4). The intention is, "after long and careful study," to present possible reforms to state voters.

This is an issue that might cause eyes to glaze over and heads to nod, but Spiropoulos makes it interesting. An OCPA adjunct scholar, Spiropoulos made his case at OCPA's headquarters on August 28 before an impressive bipartisan audience of legislators, judges, lawyers, and a few journalists. He said the goal is "to elevate the topic, and help all of us to understand the role of a constitution in any setting, and the application of constitutional principles of limited government and separation of powers at the state level."

The U.S. Constitution is a masterpiece of brevity and clarity. It has been called the best instrument for the government of human beings ever conceived. The Oklahoma Constitution is something else entirely. One of the longest constitutions in the world, it includes specifics on the flash point of kerosene and other absurdities.

Oklahoma's governors are among the weakest in America. This is not a criticism of any one governor; it is an accurate description of every Oklahoma chief executive's actual power in relation to the legislature, the judiciary, and other levels of government.

In contrast, consider Alaska and Gov. Sarah Palin, who has been much in the news lately. Dr. Thad Beyle from the University of North Carolina, who analyzes executive powers in the American states, has documented, on a five-point scale, that Alaska's executive powers come in at 4.1. That makes Palin the fifth-strongest state executive in America. She has demonstrated leadership, in part, because she runs a state where a governor can actually make a difference through appointments, budget control, and other powers.

In Beyle's analysis, Oklahoma gubernatorial powers earn an anemic 2.8, while the national average is 3.5. Our governors are the weakest in our region.

Oklahoma's executive powers stretch across 11 elected posts and dozens of agency heads. Constitutionally mandated commissions and boards dilute power and undermine accountability. Elections rarely result in real policy transformations, because bureaucrats operate without effective supervision and are unaccountable to those in elected posts. That means that Herculean efforts at reform have little (in some cases, no) effect on day-to-day policy development. There's nothing populist or representative about that!

Any proposals to refine Oklahoma's constitution will require popular approval. Change may come, as it has in our state constitution itself, in bite-sized pieces, one at a time.

As constitutional reform moves forward, I'll remember one of the most insightful reflections Spiropoulos made: "The populist and progressive founders of Oklahoma strongly believed in representing the contemporaneous ‘will of the people,' yet they would be dismayed that mechanisms and structures created more than a century ago remain in place, when the needs of the state and of the citizens have changed dramatically in that time."

Pat McGuigan (M.A., Oklahoma State University) is a research fellow at OCPA and an editor at The City Sentinel. He is the editor of several books on constitutional and legal policy, including A Blueprint for Judicial Reform.