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What becomes of former elected officials who voters have decided their time in office should end?

In the case of those officials who funneled taxpayer dollars into the coffers of public universities and colleges – many are hired to superfluous positions with exorbitant salaries within the same system that benefited from their train of taxpayer funds, higher education.

Oklahoma voters recently agreed that Oklahoma’s public colleges and universities could be run more efficiently by an overwhelming 5-to-1 margin. In the same poll, conducted by SoonerPoll, 80.1 percent of Oklahomans said that the chancellor of higher education’s salary – more than $411,000 per year – is too high.

Chancellor Glen Johnson heads the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education. The Oklahoma State System of Higher Education is a system comprised of 25 public colleges and universities, and multiple satellite campuses across the state.

But before his career in the ivory towers of academe, Johnson was a state legislator. The Democrat from Okemah authored and championed many bills to direct taxpayer funds into the government-controlled education system. As Speaker of the House, he ushered in the Education Reform Act of 1990, landmark legislation that funded a broad range of education initiatives through increased taxes. The Legislature appropriated more than $560 million over five years to implement a slate of state-directed education policies.

Johnson also authored Senate Bill 180 in 1988 to create the Endowed Chairs Program – which has funneled more than $162.7 million in taxpayer funds into the program – a program that he now directs as Chancellor. He was also the principal author of House Bill 2428 in 1992, a $350 million higher education bond issue.

Chancellor Johnson now steers the funding mechanisms he put into operation, along with many others totaling more than $1.9 billion, from the position he was given in large part because he created the funding mechanisms.

As a result of Johnson’s transition from elected office to higher education administration, the cost of maintaining the state’s higher education system has increased. And likewise, the transition of many other former elected officials into higher education serves to ensure the continuation of an incestuous revolving door.

Powerful elected leaders install former politicians in powerful higher education positions so that when the powerful elected leader loses election, the former politician now ensconced at a university can return the favor by creating a superfluous position with an inflated salary in which to place the once powerful elected leader.

The newly minted higher education professional, once hired into the system, has an incentive to endorse and champion new “pro-education” candidates for office for two reasons. First, to gain the increased funding from a candidate/politician who wishes to become part of the good-old-boy network, and second, to enjoy advancement in their new career by appointment from the elected leader they helped to get elected.

Regents for Higher Education

This incestuous system starts with the Regents for Higher Education. As reported, Johnson leads the regents and has incentive to continue the revolving door. Amanda Paliotta pulls down $191,650 per year as the vice chancellor for budget and finance, but prior to her position with the regents, Paliotta was the director of the Oklahoma Senate fiscal staff. In that position, she formed public policy for higher education, common education, state transportation, capital needs and bond refinancing.

Tony Hutchison is the vice chancellor for strategic planning, analysis, economic development and workforce. However, before being awarded his current $165,350 position, he spent nearly 15 years at the state Capitol, first as Director of Operations for the Oklahoma Senate and later as Director of State Finance. Hutchison left the Capitol when the Republicans took control in 2008, he was immediately granted his position with the regents.

Hollye Hunt is, according to State Rep. Randy Terrill, R-Moore, “the highest paid, taxpayer-funded lobbyist,” in the state. Hunt is paid $150,626 to lobby the state legislature on behalf of the regents. Incidentally, Hunt’s father, Rep. Earl Sears, R-Bartlesville, is the chairman of two powerful committees, Appropriations and Budget and the Joint Committee on Appropriations and Budget.

University of Oklahoma

OU is led by perhaps the strongest proponent of the quid-pro-quo, state government-to-higher education system, President David Boren. The former Senator, former Governor, former state Representative Democrat has a long history of perpetuating the system and creating positions for former state office holders at his university.

When former Oklahoma Senate President Pro Tem Cal Hobson resigned his leadership position at the request of fellow Democrats, he might have been in danger of falling into obscurity. But, when he left elected office in 2006 after nearly 30 years in the state legislature of directing state funds to the University of Oklahoma, he was given a position with an annual salary of nearly $147,000. As the executive director of operations University of Oklahoma Outreach, Hobson found a comfortable landing spot despite multiple incidents of drunkenness and a history of alcoholism culminating in his removal from Senate leadership.

Hobson resigned his position with OU in 2011 following an on-campus incident, which reportedly involved alcohol. He has since been arrested three times in Cleveland County for drunk driving and attempting to bribe a police officer.

Jari Askins began her political career when she was appointed Special District Judge of Stephens County by then-Governor David Walters. She ran for, and served, six terms in the Oklahoma House before being elected Oklahoma’s lieutenant governor in 2006. Askins ran for governor in 2010 and was soundly defeated by Mary Fallin by a margin of 60 to 40 percent.

Boren immediately sought to find a position for Askins within the OU system. He found one quickly; she was appointed associate provost for the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.

The university newspaper, OU Daily, reported Boren’s comments about the hiring of Askins in an article dated March 10, 2011, by Jared Rader.

Boren said he approached Askins after she lost the gubernatorial race, telling her the Health Sciences Center would soon have a position open.

“I said, ‘We’re going to have this need coming,’ and then when she didn’t get the Supreme Court, I really then zeroed in and tried to recruit her into the job,” Boren said.

But Hobson and Askins are only two of the more high-profile examples of the revolving door system that exists at OU. The Oklahoman reported a similar instance in a Dec. 03, 2004, article by Ryan McNeill.

Former Rep. Danny Hilliard, a Sulphur Democrat who spent 14 years in the Legislature, is in line for the new $96,000-a-year position, pending the regents approval. The position did not exist before and OU President David Boren said it wasn't created to provide a public sector job for a term-limited lawmaker.

"It's really not that,” Boren said in a telephone interview. “Danny Hilliard didn't come to us. We came to him.”

All of the positions created, and all of the appointments granted must be approved by the State Regents for Higher Education. But, as reported above, the regents have ample incentive to perpetuate the quid-pro-quo dealings.

More recently, Boren has created an entire new bureaucracy in the wake of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity racist chant scandal.

Jabar Shumate, a former state Representative and Senator from Tulsa, was hired as Vice President for the University Community with oversight over all diversity programs within the University, including admissions. His mandate, in short, is to ensure diversity compliance across all campuses within the university’s system. Although OU did not announce Shumate’s salary, it did say that his compensation would be comparable with other university vice presidents, somewhere north of $200,000.

Other Universities

Iconic Oklahoma politician George Nigh served in public office for 35 years. He served in the Oklahoma House from 1951-1959, was the eighth and tenth lieutenant governor, and the seventeenth and twenty-second Governor of Oklahoma. His political career ended in 1987, his higher education career began in 1992. Nigh became the President of the University of Central Oklahoma on July 1 of that year where he remained for five years.

The current president of Rogers State University is Larry Rice. The Claremore Democrat was hired to head the university in 2008, but prior to his presidency he was a state representative for District 8, east of Tulsa. Immediately following his time in the legislature, Rice was named Executive Assistant to the President at The University of Tulsa.

Sean Burrage was named President of Southeastern Oklahoma State University on May 15, 2014, by the Regional University System of Oklahoma Board of Regents. He began his duties on July 1, 2014. Burrage completed his second term as the District 2 Oklahoma State Senator in May 2014.

Randy Beutler, current President of Southwestern Oklahoma State University, was elected to the Oklahoma House of Representatives in 1992 and served until 2000. In 2003, Beutler was hired by then-Governor Brad Henry as his legislative liaison to the Oklahoma House. He worked to pass the Oklahoma state lottery, the Tribal Gaming Act and the creation of the Insure Oklahoma program.  Preceding SWOSU President John Hays hired Beutler to assist with external affairs, legislative matters, grant assistance and development of external funds in 2006. Upon the retirement of Hays, Beutler was appointed President.

Is This Legal?

Yes and no. Oklahoma is one of at least 33 states with a revolving door prohibition to prevent former elected officials from lobbying state government after leaving office. The prohibition amounts to a two-year ban on the appointment of any office or awarding of any contract to a former legislator after they leave elected office.

This is the exact language from Section V-23 of the Oklahoma Constitution:

No member of the Legislature shall, during the term for which he was elected, be appointed or elected to any office or commission in the State, which shall have been created, or the emoluments of which shall have been increased, during his term of office, nor shall any member receive any appointment from the Governor, the Governor and Senate, or from the Legislature, during the term for which he shall have been elected, nor shall any member, during the term for which he shall have been elected, or within two years thereafter, be interested, directly or indirectly, in any contract with the State, or any county or other subdivision thereof, authorized by law passed during the term for which he shall have been elected.

This prohibition is flouted through a loophole, in which, the regents and higher education institutions pay the salaries of former elected with “non-appropriated funds.”

This equivocation is criticized by some as a distinction without a difference because in the context of a salary for a permissible employee versus the salary for a prohibited employee, appropriated funds become fungible with non-appropriated funds. In other words, an existing employee – or 10 existing employees – who are currently paid through non-appropriated funds could be converted to pay through appropriated funds in order to make room in the budget for the former legislator for the two years of the prohibition. In fact, a university with a large endowment could pay the salary of a barred former legislator with disbursements from the endowment for the intervening time until the new employee could legally be paid through appropriated funds.

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