Before Bannon, The ‘Destruction of the Administrative State’ Started in Oklahoma

The Sooner State is starved for cash and in shambles—and the contradictions are heightening, fast.

Sue Ogrocki/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Last year, then White House chief strategist Steve Bannon declared his “line of work is destruction of the administrative state,” so that “if you look at these cabinet appointees, they were selected for a reason and that is destruction.”

My home state of Oklahoma was quietly doing this long before Bannon announced the plan. Last week, Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association made her way to the pulpit of a well-attended press conference to demand, among other things, a $10,000 pay raise for teachers, who are among the nation’s lowest paid, just below their counterparts in West Virginia. That came after years of losing talented educators to neighboring states, and after legislators this year blocked a pay raise for teachers. Prist then talked about “drastic efforts to save public education,” drawing national headlines for her talk of a teacher strike beginning on April 2.

While public school teachers may be among the most recent, easily identified and best organized victims of the destruction of the administrative state, they’re hardly the only ones in Oklahoma. Subtle in some ways and overt in others, the erosion of the state government from within has been underway here  nearly a decade, since Republican Mary Fallin became governor in 2010 on a platform of reducing income taxes and cutting state spending while giving even more support to the oil and gas industries.

In Oklahoma, companies drilling for oil and gas do not pay property taxes on the land holding their reserves, resulting in a “gross production tax” of approximately 3.2 percent, compared to 8.3 percent in Texas and 13.4  percent in Wyoming. In 2015, that tax cheme amounted to a $470 million dollar break—draining money that could have gone to the state.

Fallin finally got her tax cut 2016, a .25 percent trim that cost the state nearly $157 million dollars that fiscal year. That, coupled with price fluctuations for the state’s darling industry, oil and gas, opened up a gaping budget deficit that’s compelled more cuts at already overstretched and underfunded agencies across the stat—many with secretaries, directors and commissioners who had already been sticking out their necks for the axe.

The same year Fallin came to office, Scott Pruitt, now Trump’s administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, became attorney general of Oklahoma. Though not appointed by Fallin, he worked as part of her administration to weaken the powers of his office, eliminating its “environmental protection unit,” and zeroing out the budget for environmental law enforcement. In its place, he created a  new Federalism Unit to fight national environmental regulations.

Fallin did appoint Dr. Terry Cline, a holdover from previous administrations, to serve as both Commissioner of the Oklahoma State Department of Health and Secretary of Health and Human Services (OSDH). Decreases in the tax-base and budget troubles hit Cline’s departments the hardest. OSDH sought to reduce costs by furloughing any employee making above $35,000 one day every two weeks and cut funding for nine child abuse prevention programs and 25 health centers. Recently, the department announced its intention to cut its workforce by 12 percent.

As the health agencies’ budget problems worsened, Commissioner Cline resigned in October 2017 after the State Board of Health called out his mismanagement. The FBI and the Office of the Inspector General of US Department of Health and Human Services launched an investigation into the use of federal funds at the state’s health department, whose financial situation became so dire that then-Interim Commissioner Preston Doerflinger warned salaries would go unpaid without emergency funding from the legislature.

But Doerflinger—who resigned last month amid domestic abuse allegations from 2012—is no fiscal hero here. Rather, he played one of the most significant roles in damaging both the state’s ability to function but also its reputation.

Before his brief stint as interim health commissioner, Fallin had appointed Doerflinger to be secretary of Finance and Revenue. In this role, he architected the entirety of Fallin’s fiscal policies and the drastic cuts that resulted from them. In 2016, he oversaw a 16 percent reduction in higher education funding. In 2017, state troopers were warned not to fill their cars’ gas tanks, drunk drivers kept their licenses because there weren’t enough staffers to revoke them, an nearly a fifth of the state’s school districts shifted to four-day weeks to cut costs.

Bannon must be proud: Oklahoma’s administrative state is in shambles and the contradictions are heightening, fast.

Oklahoma’s taxes on the production of oil and gas are among the lowest in the country.