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DHS needs meaningful oversight

Greg Treat September 12th, 2012

The presidential election has many Americans sharply divided along party lines. As Oklahomans, however, there is something on the ballot in November that should unite us regardless of political affiliation — State Question 765.

SQ 765 is aimed at bringing long-overdue reforms at the Department of Human Services, which impacts more lives than almost any other agency.

In the last decade, news headlines have exposed case after case of tragedy and failure by DHS. It’s clear that change is needed. Every department, program, and employee needs to be scrutinized to ensure they are at optimal performance in helping the people the agency is designed to serve and protect.

DHS, for all its pitfalls, is comprised of many dedicated employees who work hard to serve our state. The underlying problem with the agency is a flawed structure that stymies real reform and accountability. It is a system created to preserve and protect the status quo, which endangers the well-being of our citizenry and leads to unacceptable outcomes.

The governing structure was forced on Oklahoma and many other states during the Great Depression as a prerequisite to receiving federal welfare money. The vast majority of states have long since abandoned that organizational structure and implemented more modern management structures — but not Oklahoma.

We remain hamstrung by an outdated and ineffective model.

Oklahoma’s Constitution was amended in 1936 to create the Department of Public Welfare. The accompanying commission was created to provide governance and oversight. That commission consists of nine members each serving nine-year terms, essentially nullifying the ability of the governor or the Legislature to have any meaningful oversight or influence over the direction of the agency.

Furthermore, its members are uncompensated volunteers who rarely get any information beyond what the agency staff provides. This system gives the appearance of accountability and stringent oversight with nary a hint of either.

A far more preferable system is to hold the state’s highest elected official and the Legislature accountable for the performance of the agency; SQ 765 would provide just such a system.

Past legislatures and governors hid behind the wall of the state constitution to tell citizens that DHS is a “constitutional agency,” and that nothing much could be done about it.

That was partially true. SQ 765 will nullify this excuse by holding the governor and Legislature directly responsible for the performance of DHS.

We now have a governor and a Legislature willing to boldly step forward and take responsibility and lead with courage and vision.

But we need voter approval to do so.

A vote for SQ 765 will bring accountability to DHS. Legislation I carried in the Senate (along with Speaker Kris Steele and Rep. Jason Nelson in the House) was part of a package of reforms that, in the Senate, received unanimous support from Republicans and Democrats.

Indeed, Senate Democratic Leader Sean Burrage was involved in every step of the process and supports the need for meaningful DHS reform.

I ask that all Oklahomans, regardless of political stripe, join in the transformation of DHS by voting for SQ 765 on Election Day.

Treat is a Republican representing District 47 in the Oklahoma State Senate.

Opinions expressed on the commentary page, in letters to the editor and elsewhere in this newspaper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of ownership or management.

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