The Oklahoma House narrowly and on a largely urban-rural split passed a bill this week to give the governor power over the Tulsa and Oklahoma city-county health departments.
House Bill 2504 inserts the state health commissioner, who is appointed by the governor, into the process of picking new directors for the state’s two independent health departments. The measure also requires local directors to align priorities with the health commissioner’s, lets the health commissioner ask for a local director’s removal and bans the local health departments from implementing regulations more stringent than the state’s.
House Majority Leader Jon Echols (R-Oklahoma City) told the bill’s author, Rep. Chris Kannady (R-Oklahoma City), constituents have told him they don’t want the changes the bill would make.
"We’re giving the governor veto-proof authority. It seems like a massive power grab by the governor — and I know that’s not your intent, I’m not saying you’re doing that — what do I tell them? I mean, why are they paying their extra property tax money if the state’s going to take control of it?" Echols said.
Kannady said a 2018 report from Gov. Mary Fallin’s Joint Commission on Public Health calls for "joint governance." While that phrase is in the report, it does not recommend any of the proposals in Kannady’s bill, even saying at one point, "Efforts to improve health outcomes must focus on increasing efficiency, encouraging autonomous decision-making at the local level to develop community specific partnerships and governance structures that best meet the needs."
Facing intense questioning from Tulsa Democrats about how the legislation was developed, Kannady also claimed he’d been in contact with Mayors G.T. Bynum and David Holt, as well as a point person from the Tulsa Health Department. Kannady said Bynum and Holt had talked to local media outlets about the bill.
"You will see the two mayors have been neutral. 'We didn’t necessarily ask for this, but we’re OK with the language.' So, there has to be — proves there was some communication in Tulsa," Kannady said. "But I can’t talk to every single person that wants input on this bill."
A Bynum spokesperson said he never discussed the legislation with Kannady and is opposed to the proposal, "an unnecessary intervention into the work of the Tulsa Health Department."
A THD spokesperson said they were unaware of the bill until it was introduced and directed KWGS to an editorial by Tulsa Health Department Board of Health Chair Dr. Ann Paul in which she described it as "a blatant attempt to overstep and centralize power, placing control in the hands of political appointees with allegiances that will potentially undermine the health and safety of Tulsa County residents."
Gov. Kevin Stitt on Thursday indicated the local departments’ actions during the pandemic have been an issue, saying things changed after his order designating the state health department as the lead in the response expired.
"They, I’m sure, did the best that they could do, but … there wasn’t a coordinated approach when you had two health departments kind of doing their own thing," Stitt said after a news conference about Oklahoma's COVID-19 response.
State Health Commissioner Dr. Lance Frye said something similar.
"When you have different chains of command, it really just makes the situation more difficult," Frye said.
During debate on the bill, Tulsa lawmakers defended THD, saying their actions kept the county's deaths from COVID-19 to a minimum.
"The officials of the Tulsa County Health Department I know for a fact worked heroically to save lives. Heroically. And this bill looks like retaliation. It looks like a vote of no confidence. Why can’t we have collaboration that doesn’t involve changing the way directors are named?" said Rep. John Waldron (D-Tulsa).
HB2504 passed 54–41. Few representatives of the Tulsa and Oklahoma City metro areas voted for the measure.