The state’s largest agency, the Department of Human Services, is already benefiting from the fresh eyes of its new director, Justin Brown.
Last month, Brown’s new approach to managing the multibillion-dollar agency produced necessary raises for thousands of front-line agency employees providing compassionate care to Oklahoma’s at-risk citizens — all without any new tax dollars.
How? Because Brown dug deep on the agency’s budget, asked tough questions and made sound business decisions that are a win-win for the agency and for taxpayers.
Legislators should take notice of Brown’s efforts as we launch the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency, or LOFT.
LOFT is the independent, nonpartisan legislative budget office formed this year to provide better, deeper agency financial information to legislators so we can make smarter decisions with tax dollars.
If Brown’s early experience at DHS is any indicator, LOFT has plenty to uncover within Oklahoma’s vast regime of state agencies.
Shortly after Gov. Kevin Stitt named him DHS director this summer, Brown began an in-depth review of the agency’s budget. Using fresh eyes and a keen business acumen honed during a successful private sector career, Brown found hundreds of taxpayer-funded positions at DHS had gone unfilled for years. That meant the agency had continued to request and receive tax dollars for jobs it could not fill.
Thankfully, rather than using the classic bureaucrat trick of not disclosing the discovery in order to keep the taxpayer spigot flowing, Brown instead asked an honest question: Were these positions even needed anymore?
They were not. Within weeks, Brown had uncovered $10.8 million earmarked for 850 positions that weren’t even necessary.
Brown’s next move was also refreshing. He reallocated the funds so 3,700 necessary employees could get raises averaging 13% to make their pay comparable to peers at other state agencies. These raises will reduce turnover and improve employee morale, which will enhance the quality of services DHS provides to the Oklahomans who need it most.
Brown could have used this “found” money for pet projects, or squirreled it away, but he opted instead to invest in the agency’s most valuable asset — its workforce. It was a smart move other agency directors would be wise to emulate.
Back to LOFT. In a world with LOFT, no agency would receive tax dollars for positions it could not fill and did not need. But that is what happened at DHS, and likely at other agencies, in large part because the cards are stacked against legislators when it comes to receiving complete state agency spending information. Legislators have been beholden to what agencies provide, and if an agency director provides something misleading or inaccurate, legislators have had no recourse.
With LOFT, that stops. Once LOFT is fully staffed next year, legislators will finally be able to trust, but verify.
In essence, LOFT was created to do precisely what Brown did at DHS: Give outside scrutiny to existing spending and requested spending, and if there is a deficiency, recommend better courses of action.
As chairman of the House Appropriations and Budget Subcommittee on Human Services, I am thankful Brown found this issue at DHS, notified legislators and involved us in the fix. And I am optimistic that when it hits its stride, LOFT can do for all agencies what Director Brown has already done at DHS.
In the end, LOFT should not be about finding dirt or punishing agencies. It must be about using honest, unfiltered information to help agencies run better, to the benefit of the public and agency employees, just like Director Brown is doing at DHS.
Mark Lawson, a Republican, represents House District 30 in the Oklahoma House of Representatives. He serves as chairman of the House Appropriations and Budget Subcommittee on Human Services. He lives in Sapulpa.