An oversight committee voted Friday to hire a former legislator-turned-lobbyist to head a newly created agency tasked with auditing and reviewing state spending.
Democrats on the committee criticized the hiring process, saying it lacked transparency.
Lawmakers voted to create a Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency (LOFT) in the 2019 legislative session. LOFT’s mission is to audit state agency budgets and evaluate the effectiveness of state programs and services and issue reports of resulting conclusions that will inform legislative debate. LOFT’s final reports will be made public.
Members of the Oversight Committee for the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency voted Friday to hire former state Rep. Mike Jackson, R-Enid, as the new agency’s first executive director.
Jackson most recently worked as the executive vice president of government and political affairs for the State Chamber of Oklahoma, as well as a registered lobbyist for the chamber. Prior to joining the chamber in 2014, Jackson served 10 years in the Oklahoma House of Representatives, including serving as Speaker Pro Tempore of the House, the chamber’s second-highest-ranking position. He has also worked as a field representative for U.S. Senator Jim Inhofe and at the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture.
The hiring process for the executive director position has been underway for months, but Democrats said they only became aware of Jackson’s interest a day before the meeting.
“Prior to session, we had an opportunity to go through a stack of resumes, and this resume was not in that stack,” said Rep. Cyndi Munson, D-Oklahoma City. “So I’m wondering what part we play before the speaker and the pro tem decide who is going to be considered at the committee? What was the point of us going through all of that if we weren’t going to have an opportunity to take a look at this resume prior to today?”
Under the process now in place, the speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives and the president pro tempore of the Senate recommend a director, but the oversight committee is the entity that makes the decision to hire. The oversight committee must also do an annual performance evaluation and make a recommendation on whether to retain the director. The LOFT director cannot be retained without the support of both legislative leaders and the support of a majority of the oversight committee’s members.
Rep. Meloyde Blancett, D-Tulsa, said LOFT was created “for the purpose of building trust and strong communications between agency staff and the Legislature as well as the public,” and complained some members of the oversight committee “found out literally yesterday” that Jackson was among the applicants.
“If this is the way that we are going to begin this important agency, I have serious concerns about the efficacy of how it will be managed going forward,” Blancett said.
Sen. Julia Kirt, D-Oklahoma City, also said she was “concerned that we do not know the salary range that has been offered or that has been proposed.”
Rep. Kevin Wallace, a Wellston Republican who is co-chair of the oversight committee, said the salary range for similar positions in state government runs from $115,000 to $124,000.
Republicans noted that COVID-19 has disrupted state government and created increased urgency to fill the LOFT executive director position, particularly with hundreds of millions in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding coming into state coffers.
“Right now, we have all of this CARES money coming into the state, and it immediately became apparent that we needed LOFT up and going immediately to try to track this money and how it was being spent because of the budget crisis that we also find ourselves in,” said Sen. Kim David, R-Porter.
“If there’s ever a time in the state of Oklahoma to move on LOFT and move now on LOFT, that we can begin to get good numbers—not only tracking the CARES money that is coming in, but also good numbers as we work through the budget process beginning for FY22—today is that day,” said Sen. Roger Thompson, an Okemah Republican who is the oversight committee’s other co-chair.
Republican members also said Jackson is qualified for the job.
Rep. Mike Osburn, R-Edmond, said he is “less concerned about when the applications came in and more about getting the best candidate, getting the best person for this job.”
“I believe that this process has produced the best possible candidate for this job,” Osburn said. “I think he is highly qualified for this position, and I think he’s going to do a great job in this position in a bipartisan, nonpartisan way to help the state Legislature get the best information as they put together the budget.”
“This is going to be a difficult job,” said Rep. Kyle Hilbert, R-Bristow. “Mr. Jackson has a tough road ahead building this agency from scratch. But I cannot think of someone more qualified amongst the applicants and I can’t think of someone better prepared for this job to navigate both the policy and the actual task of the job.”
Sen. Frank Simpson, R-Ardmore, noted that even after thoroughly reviewing applications and interviewing candidates, many new hires represent “gambling on an unknown, taking a chance on an unknown entity,” but said lawmakers “don’t have that problem here.”
“We’re not gambling on someone, hoping they can do the job,” Simpson said. “We’re taking a look at someone that most of us in this room are very confident that he is able to do the job.”
“I don’t think that we could have drawn a resume for a director of LOFT any better than the person who has shown up here to be reviewed,” Wallace said.
Rep. Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, said Jackson’s hiring should not be portrayed as “some type of a political patronage job.”
“If we decide not to hire Mike Jackson, he will have a job making far more money in the private sector than the state of Oklahoma is able to pay him,” Echols said.
Jackson’s hiring was approved on a 9-4 vote that broke along party lines with Republicans in support and Democrats opposed.