Budget & Tax

Mike Brake | November 3, 2014

The ABCs of Big Government in Oklahoma

Mike Brake

Shortly after the Oklahoma Legislature convened in February of this year, the Tulsa World warned in an editorial column that any proposed tax cuts would leave state government “starved” for operating revenue, dooming us to status as a “backward state.”

“By all accounts,” the column claimed, “Oklahoma government is small.”

Well now. Not by all accounts. For example, the authoritative account of the size and scope of state government is published by that self-same government. It’s called the ABC Book (which stands for Agencies, Boards and Commissions) and it lists in some detail the myriad bodies that are funded, in full or in part, by Oklahoma taxpayers.
The meat of the book runs from page 59 through page 140 in the 2013 edition. That’s the alphabetical list of every agency, task force, committee, commission and other entity—81 densely packed pages that clearly indicate that if state government is truly “starved” for dollars, one primary reason is that we spend so many of those dollars on duplicated, less-than-necessary, and sometimes downright silly ventures in government.

The ABC Book starts with an immediate reminder that a government that tries to do everything rarely does much of anything well at all. The first entry is the Abstractors Board, which employs three people (an executive director, inspector, and administrative assistant) and recently moved to new offices in north downtown Oklahoma City. So we can assume that taxpayers are paying at least $100,000 in salaries and benefits for those three employees, plus thousands more in rent.

There are also 10 members of the Abstractors Board who meet monthly (filing mileage claims along the way) as they oversee the activities of this state agency. Those activities are, well, to license and regulate and generally meddle in the activities of people who handle property abstracting. Which is something any reasonably competent clerical worker could do with a minimum of training.

So right off the bat the ABC Book is spending our dollars to license and regulate an occupation that really needs no licensing or regulating at all.

Of course defenders of all this government will claim that many of these licensing agencies are self-supporting by the fees they charge, which is only partially true. The people who work there will someday retire and draw a state-funded pension for decades, vastly expanding the cost. Plus, those fees are siphoned out of the economy like a tax; every $10 annual license cost comes out of the pocket of a taxpayer.

Moving through the “A” listings we find agencies doing the same with accountants and architects. That second agency also monitors “registered interior designers.” Presumably there are penalties if the drapes clash with the fabric pattern on the sofa.

The functions of many state agencies are obvious; the Boll Weevil Eradication Organization aims to get rid of those pesky cotton parasites. But what does the Centennial Botanical Garden Authority do? Apparently it oversees a garden in Tulsa.

By the Cs we’re back to licensing and regulating more occupations, which the ABC Book is very big on. It is apparent that very few people in Oklahoma can manage to do their jobs without state supervision. The Construction Industries Board licenses electricians and plumbers, among others, but it takes three full boards to deal with people who unclog drains, including the Plumbing Hearing Board and the Plumbing Installation Code Variance and Appeal Board.

The Commission on County Government Personnel Education and Training is ready to step in to remediate county workers who lack the same. The County Energy District Authority “allows county governments to establish PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) programs to incentivize permanently fixed … energy efficient improvements to promote progress through PACE loans.” No translation is provided.

The Emergency Drought Commission has yet to produce rain.

By the middle of the alphabet we’re back to licensing engineers and land surveyors, as well as foresters and funeral directors. If a tree falls on you in the forest, do you get a discount casket?

The State Office of Geographic Information “supports the Geographic Information Council,” which has 19 members who meet each month “to share information about developing technology and applications in the geographic information field.” There is also an Oklahoma Board of Geographic Names, in case those 19 people forget to call a butte by its proper title.

The Health Department overflows with boards and commissions, including the Advancement of Wellness Advisory Council, the Fire Extinguisher Industry Committee, and of course the Catastrophic Health Emergency Planning Task Force. (This may have had something to do with Obamacare!)

Here’s a favorite: when was the last time you heard of anyone dying from a bad haircut? Well, just in case they go berserk with shears, we have the Cosmetology and Barbering State Board which also regulates and licenses manicurists and those who give facials. Hair braiders even get a special mention.

The Liquefied Petroleum Gas Board is different from the Liquefied Petroleum Gas Research, Marketing and Safety Commission, which proudly boasts that it has handed out “400,000 safety pamphlets” to warn folks not to hammer nails into their propane tanks.

Licensing runs amok in the medical field. Most folks agree that brain surgeons ought to meet some basic training and performance standards, but we’re also inspecting, testing, and licensing physical therapists, electrologists, optometrists, psychologists, podiatrists, perfusionists, social workers, drug and alcohol counselors, speech pathologists, and more.

The Special Committee on Soldier Relief is tasked to “conduct a comprehensive multi-year review of the amount of state tax revenue generated by members of the armed forces and their families who are Oklahoma residents.” Why? Who knows? But abolishing this useless committee would probably send the Tulsa World into a tizzy over how we are starving state government.

Of course everyone loves children, but state government smothers them under so many agencies, boards, commissions, and task forces that they hardly have room to wiggle. There are Commissions on Children and Youth, an Office of Juvenile System Oversight, and offices for planning, coordinating, overseeing, and otherwise meddling with just about every kid in the state.

We have a State Advisory Group in Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to deal with Johnny before he goes bad, an Office of Juvenile Affairs to lock him up when he does, and a Santa Claus Commission to buy him a present.

How much good do all these prehensile, multi-tentacled, omnipresent arms of state government do? It might be noted that the Oklahoma Commission on the Status of Women was created in 1994 … after Oklahoma elected the first women ever to occupy the offices of Lieutenant Governor, Labor Commissioner, and State Superintendent. It takes 30 members to operate that commission, which does, well, nothing discernable at all.

Mind you this is just state government. We have 77 county governments, each with a half-dozen elected officials who might serve as few as a thousand people in some rural counties; more than 500 local school boards and superintendents, some collecting their salaries in tiny districts a mile or two apart; and legions of college and career tech administrators on campuses that dot the landscape like convenience stores.

Gluttony always has its defenders, but even a casual scan of the ABC Book would tell anyone with sense that there’s plenty of room to cut without endangering essential state services.

Mike Brake is a journalist and writer who has recently authored a centennial history of Putnam City Schools. He served as chief writer for Gov. Frank Keating and for then-Lt. Gov. and Congresswoman Mary Fallin, and has also served as an adjunct instructor at OSU-OKC.

Mike Brake

Independent Journalist

Mike Brake is a journalist and writer who recently authored a centennial history of Putnam City Schools. A former reporter at The Oklahoman (his coverage of the moon landing earned a front-page byline on July 21, 1969), he served as chief writer for Gov. Frank Keating and for Lt. Gov. and Congresswoman Mary Fallin. He has also served as an adjunct instructor at OSU-OKC, and currently serves as public information officer for Oklahoma County Commissioner Brian Maughan.

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