Will Oklahoma Voters Abolish DHS?
In my last post, I gave my voting recommendations for the six state questions on the Oklahoma November ballot.
Among progressives, the only recommendation that created much discussion was my suggested “no” vote for State Question 765, which abolishes the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (DHS) and “adds a provision to the Constitution authorizing the Legislature to create a department or departments to administer and carry out laws to provide for the care of the aged and the needy.”
The supposed impetus behind the question is to restructure DHS by doing away with the current Commission for Human Services and allowing the governor, with state Senate approval, to appoint the department’s director. This new structure is contained in House Bill 3137, which was passed last legislative session, but is not specifically part of the measure voters will consider Nov. 6. It will go into effect if the measure is approved.
The fact that this new structure is not included in the measure and that the question itself actually abolishes DHS—essentially before it’s recreated again by legislation—is why I’m voting against SQ 765. How much of a constitutional mandate beyond legislative authorization will there remain that will ensure the state will “provide for the care of the aged and needy”? It seems unclear to me.
Here’s the ballot language:
The measure amends the Oklahoma Constitution. It abolishes the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, the Oklahoma Commission of Human Services and the position of Director of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services. These entities were created under different names by Sections 2, 3 and 4 of Article 25 of the Oklahoma Constitution and given duties and responsibilities related to the care of the aged and needy. The measure repeals these sections of the Constitution and consequently, removes the power of the Commission of Human Services to establish policy and adopt rules and regulations. Under the measure, the Legislature and the people by initiative petition retain the power to adopt legislation for these purposes.
The measure adds a provision to the Constitution authorizing the Legislature to create a department or departments to administer and carry out laws to provide for the care of the aged and the needy. The measure also authorizes the Legislature to enact laws requiring the newly created department or departments to perform other duties.
First, note the “abolish” language. The obvious question is why the entire agency has to be abolished before it can be recreated under a new structure. Is it simply a matter of legal form or is it a deliberate attempt to remove constitutional protection for vulnerable groups of people? Second, note how the legislature and the initiative petition process will now control what is referred to in the measure as “duties and responsibilities related to the care of the aged and needy.” Essentially, then, the very existence of DHS becomes part of Oklahoma’s grand political morass, which includes extremist movements antithetical to the “care of the aged and needy.” Third, the measure “authorizes” the legislature to create a new department, presumably DHS, but it doesn’t dictate that must happen.
Some will argue that I’m parsing the language too closely, and that HB 3137 takes care of the issue by not only recreating DHS but also adding four oversight panels, yet I’m not the only one who has questioned the ballot language.
House Speaker Kris Steele (R-Shawnee), for example, wrote Attorney General Scott Pruitt July 10 about the measure, asking “that the ballot title include language addressing the passage of HB3137 which reconstituted the Department of Human Services in statute.” Steele went on to write that he thinks “the language is necessary.” Obviously, Steele shared some of the concerns I and others have about the measure. Pruitt, however, dismissed Steele concerns, arguing in a July 11 letter the “specific language in HB 3137 is not a part of the constitutional amendment and is subject to change by this Legislature or subsequent legislatures.” That’s an important sentence—note “subject to change”—revealing the measure will mean DHS is left with weaker constitutional protection.
(The Steele and Pruitt letters can be found here.)
I’m a realist, and I know after the election, no matter what, DHS will exist and continue to do business, but I also wonder why, under the guise of reform, voters will be asked to do something as dramatic as “abolish” DHS. Think about that for a moment. I won’t vote to abolish DHS, even with all the official assurances and even with HB 3137 waiting in the wings.
The Commission for Human Services came under fire recently because of a lawsuit filed against the state on behalf of foster children under DHS care. That lawsuit has now been settled. Some people argued this last year that the commission wasn’t providing appropriate oversight to the agency. Does that mean we should abolish DHS by constitutional amendment? No.
Do I trust that our elected officials are not politicizing this issue and that we simply have to abolish DHS before it can exist under a new structure because of legal precedent or guidelines? No, frankly, I don’t trust that is the case, though some people supporting this measure may have the best intentions. In the end, putting all that aside, there’s really no argument. I will not vote to abolish a major state agency—even if only on a figurative level—that serves the less fortunate among us.