Monday, November 30, 2009

Senator Gumm's "Senate Minute" - Nov. 27, 2009 - Think More About How Decisions Affect People than Politics

DURANT, Okla. Hello again, everybody! As most Oklahoma families’ thoughts turn to preparing for Christmas and winding down the year, the machinery of the Legislature begins winding up preparing for next year’s session.

That does not take into account the recent talk about a possible special session. The governor recently suggested he would be open to a January special session – beginning only a few weeks before the regular session – to deal with revenue shortfalls caused by the national recession.

Many of us in the Legislature have suggested for some time that we should return to the Capitol for a special session to respond to the budget crisis. The Oklahoma Constitution allows two ways for a special session to convene.

The first way, and the one employed most often, is for the governor to order a special session and determine the subjects lawmakers can consider. The second way to order a special session is for legislators to call themselves in to session.

Several legislators – myself included – have signed a petition to order a special session. It takes two-thirds of the members of the Legislature signing the petition to order the session; that means 32 senators and 68 representatives would have to sign.

It seems unlikely enough legislators will sign the petition because neither political party has two-thirds of either the Senate or House of Representatives. Regrettably, these kinds of things seem to key off partisan politics instead of simply doing what is right.

Sometimes, however, circumstances can trump even partisan politics. Despite the fact not a single Republican senator has signed the petition to order a special session, last week the Senate Republican Caucus, echoing what many of us have been saying for months, called for a December special session.

While it appears their focus is on budget cuts, my goal in a special session would be to use Rainy Day funds or stimulus dollars to restore the $7.4 million cut in funding for senior nutrition programs that closed many senior centers. We have seen great stories as some these centers have moved on, reopening as independent or community-funded sites.

Still, senior citizens who depend on centers that require state funding to reopen deserve the help the Legislature has the ability to provide. While we will have to look at significant cuts to many state programs, we always must do the right thing and think more about how these decisions affect people more than how they affect politics.

Some say it will be an interesting political chess game that will be played out over the next several months. No matter what those months may bring, my focus as always will be on doing right by the people I was elected to serve and reminding those in both political parties who see it as a game that what we do and say will affect people’s lives.

Thanks again for reading the “Senate Minute,” have a great week and may God bless you all.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Giving the Governor the Power to Reform Government

Over the legislative interim, I have enjoyed observing the manner in which state agencies are reacting to the series of government modernization reforms approved by the Legislature and the Governor during the last legislative session.

Some agencies react to the challenge of saving taxpayer money in an energetic and positive manner. They are supportive of modernization efforts and seem to take to heart the importance of using technology and best practice to offer better service at a lower cost. Other agencies instinctively resist change and appear desperate to maintain the status quo of antiquated practices. These agencies can resist change by intentionally misinterpreting state statute or simply refusing to meet the requirements of the law.

This naturally presents a dilemma to Oklahoma policy makers. How should policy makers address the fact that agencies can hide behind a team of attorneys and refuse to implement needed changes? And what should occur if an agency refuses to put in place the necessary internal processes to control issues such as corruption and poor service?

Last week I wrote an article about county government's failure to have the appropriate check and balance mechanism necessary to make it difficult for corruption to occur at the county level. I believe that this same deficiency of control mechanisms exists in state government. In too many cases, when an agency refuses to put proper internal controls in place to follow the law, provide quality service and low prices, or prevent corruption, there is little that can be done to check their actions.

In last week's article, I pointed to the city model of governance as an example where professional administration is overseen by the check and balance of citizen oversight. Using that same example, can you imagine an instance where a city manager could not fire a police chief who was responsible for allowing corruption in his department?

In too many cases, this is the problem faced by Oklahoma state government policy makers, because it is very difficult for agency leaders to be removed by a responsible person, such as the Governor. If the Governor were given the power to remove agency directors for acting inappropriately, it would allow the buck to stop at the Governor's desk. If the Governor refused to take action, the people could hold him or her responsible at the next election.

With the exception of the Oklahoma Ethics Commission and Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation officials (agencies responsible for investigating political corruption), I believe the Governor should be charged with the task of removing agency directors who have failed to meet their responsibilities to the citizens.

I look forward to supporting this plan for reform during the next legislative session.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Reforming Oklahoma County Governance

One piece of legislation I have considered sponsoring for years is an omnibus reform of Oklahoma's county governance structure.

In the past, I have expressed that I feel it is important for a governing board which approves a budget to not have the ability to specifically direct where that money goes. The chances for politicians to engage in corruption and self-serving political pork appropriations are greatly enhanced when the board's ability to set policy and to specifically direct that spending are combined. In past updates, I have written about how Oklahoma legislators are becoming experts at getting around the Constitutional prohibition of this type of conduct.

Over the course of my years as a public official, I have observed that county government is a significant area in Oklahoma governance where these two responsibilities are not sufficiently separated. This blurring of the policy and expenditure power results in county governments which are extremely susceptible to "good old boy" politics where county officials can exert strong political influence over employees and vendors in order to create a small political empire funded by taxpayer dollars.

We can imagine the difficult situation this places those employees in. Should they provide political support for their employer by campaigning and donating? If they refuse to support their boss, will they lose their jobs? What happens if they support the incumbent, and the challenger wins the election?
This same pressure will be felt by county vendors. They may be vested in the outcome of an election, based not on the merits of the candidates, but on their ability to continue making money, depending on who wins or loses the election. It is difficult for people to know if a vendor is chosen because of his/her performance, or because he/she is a friend of the official. Public servants and vendors should be allowed to focus on their jobs and provide quality services to taxpayers, instead of being forced to play political games.

County government should operate much like the governance model used in city government. A largely uncompensated board of elected citizen county commissioners should have oversight over a professional county manager who has the same education and qualifications as a city manager. This person would be responsible for hiring the county department heads, thus providing for employees a level of protection from political pressure. Much like a city council, the Board of Commissioners would set policy and budget, but have no ability to direct specific expenditure of funds outside of a competitive bid process.

It is important to note that if I decide to pursue this legislation this year, it will not be part of any type of House modernization agenda. This idea is something that I have thought about sponsoring for several years, and I have yet to find the opportunity to advocate for it. Prior to making the decision whether or not sponsor this legislation this year, I would very much appreciate your feedback on this proposal.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Senator Gumm's Senate Minute for Nov. 20, 2009 - A Thanksgiving Message

DURANT, Okla. Hello again, everybody! This has been a tumultuous year in our state and across the nation. In Oklahoma, we face budget shortfalls that are having a real impact on people’s lives.

Still, we are a blessed people. This week, we pause to thank Almighty God for the blessings He has bestowed on us.

At Thanksgiving, my thoughts turn to my late mother, Harlene Taylor Gumm. It was the most special holiday for her because she had a prayer answered Thanksgiving Weekend 1963.

Like Deena and me, my parents were told they could never have children. That changed Thanksgiving Weekend 1963, and this true story gave Deena and me hope during our struggle to become parents.

This happened when medical science was not nearly as advanced as today. My parents had been married for three years, and Mom taught home economics at Calera High School.

Doctors told Mom she could not bear children. Despite every possible effort, Mom was given the same prognosis Deena and I once heard: “You cannot have children.”

That summer, my mother started feeling ill. Countless trips to doctors several series of tests followed. Specialists in Dallas and Oklahoma City were stumped.

Mom thought she might be expecting, but every test available came back “negative.” Mom was put on a strict diet and she lost weight. Those of you who knew Mom know she was as tough as they came; it didn’t matter whether she felt bad, she would be at work. So, she kept working and kept feeling worse.

After Thanksgiving dinner at my grandparents’ house, Mom and Dad went home and Mom got worse. She toughed it out overnight but she finally went to old Durant Hospital the next morning fearing the worst.

To the nurses and doctors, she was in serious distress; some feared she might be dying. Mom’s doctor thought she might be trying to pass a kidney stone and ordered an x-ray of her abdomen.

That x-ray was the first picture ever taken of me. To his dying day, that doctor called me “Rocky” after the stone he thought I was.

Once everyone knew what was going on, I was born shortly thereafter. No one, except the Lord above, had any idea I was coming. Expected or not, a child was the answer to a prayer. Four decades later, that same prayer was answered for Deena and me with Jacob. My parents’ story gave us hope, and we share that hope with every couple trying to become parents.

When I was old enough to understand the story of how I arrived, it made me think of this: As difficult as times may be, we all have much to be thankful for – and there may be more blessings right around the corner. May you and your families find new blessings in this special season and throughout the year.

Thanks again for reading the “Senate Minute,” happy Thanksgiving, and may God bless you all.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Implementing a Shared Services Policy

A few weeks ago, the House of Representatives Government Modernization Committee conducted an interim study to explore the possibility of realizing taxpayer savings through the implementation of shared services among agencies.
Several state agencies testified at the interim study about their ongoing efforts to streamline and consolidate services, efforts which they state have not only saved the state money, but have also improved service. The goal of the study was to analyze the best practices at agencies currently sharing similar services and see how those concepts could be exported to other agencies.
The opportunity for savings is significant because routine services can be centralized to a single entity that can be more efficient and effective, all at a lower cost. This frees up the agencies to focus on their core missions.
One of the areas in which these shared services could be implemented is that of payroll processing. The committee heard testimony that there are currently about 114 state employees trained to process payrolls, with about 68 full-time employees dedicated to payroll functions across state agencies. According to an official with the Office of State Finance, centralization of payroll services could save as much as $2.6 million in salary and benefits alone—even more, if higher education is included.

The State Department of Tourism testified that they have already begun participating in the shared services model for payroll. A Tourism Department official said the agency has saved an estimated $40,000 per year by working with the Office of State Finance on centralizing the agency’s payroll. In addition to saving money, this reform has also made it easier for the individual employee to be able to ensure his/her payroll is properly reported in a timely manner.
The shared services model should not be limited to items such as payroll. It could also be expanded to areas such as financial services.
It is important to note that the driver of these reforms is the evolution of technology during the past few years. Without the flexibility offered by recent technological advances, the centralization of service would be difficult, if not impossible. It is vital for legislators to realize the savings that can be realized because of technological advances, and we should take advantage of them as soon as possible. This year, I expect to propose legislation which will create a road map to a more aggressive implementation of the shared services model so taxpayer savings will be realized sooner than later.
I believe that private sector businesses have been engaging in efficient practices along these lines for years and it is time for our state government to catch up.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Senator Gumm's "Senate Minute" for Nov. 13-19, 2009 - The Battle Continues to Protect Our Water

DURANT, Okla. Hello again, everybody! Six years ago, the battle began to preserve the Arbuckle-Simpson Aquifer, the source of springs and streams on which many of us depend.

Several large cities wanted to drill into the aquifer and pump away billions of gallons of water, seriously risking the aquifer’s ability to support cities like Tishomingo, Durant, Ada, Ardmore and many others in our area. After much hard work on the part of area citizens, Rep. Paul Roan and I were able to win that battle with passage of Senate Bill 288.

That law acknowledged the scientific connection between groundwater and surface water. It prevented the large-scale transfers of aquifer water out of our area, required a comprehensive hydrological study of the aquifer, and put in place rules for the sustainable management of it.

It was a tremendous victory, but the effort to protect the aquifer continues. In the aftermath of SB 288, the mining industry became the greatest threat to the long-term health of aquifer.

Deepening concerns are the persistent efforts of the mining industry to evade regulation of its impact on the aquifer. Untold amounts of Arbuckle-Simpson water ends up in these pit mines, and the industry has done everything imaginable to prevent the Oklahoma Water Resources Board (OWRB) from regulating that water.

It began with legislative efforts by the industry to move regulation of “pit water” from the OWRB to the Oklahoma Mining Commission. When I was chairman of the Energy and Environment Committee, I killed that bill, denying it a hearing despite the fact it was sponsored by both the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate.

After failing in the Legislature, the industry went to the courts, winning a ruling that moved regulation of pit water to the Mining Commission. That unfortunate ruling – still under appeal – gave the industry what it failed to achieve in the Legislature.

The Mining Commission is ill-equipped to effectively manage a water resource. In fact, there is no state law in place for the Mining Commission to regulate water produced by a hard rock mine like those in northwest Johnston County; the only mining law on water is about surface coal mining – none of which occurs over the Arbuckle-Simpson.

The composition of the Mining Commission is – rightly – weighted toward those whose livelihoods depend on the industry. Those whose futures are dependent on the Arbuckle-Simpson are – rightly – concerned about the lack of effective regulation.

In short, what we who support sustainable management of the Arbuckle-Simpson must do is restore balance. That balance, and fairness, and trust were shaken by the mining industry’s efforts to evade effective and objective regulation.

I am preparing legislation that would restore that balance, preserving the mining industry in my district while ensuring that it does not destroy our future by destroying our aquifer. The people who depend on the aquifer and its streams and springs deserve no less.

Thanks again for reading the “Senate Minute,” have a great week, and may God bless you all.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Implementation of Shared Services

Last year, an omnibus modernization bill (HB 1032), made accessing state services more convenient for vendors and individuals, and could lead to the saving of millions of dollars in taxpayer expenditures.

The bill seeks to recognize that savings have been incurred by those state agencies who have modernized licensing and permitting processes by offering them online. In this way, not only are countless hours and dollars saved by the agencies who have modernized their operations, but hours are saved by the applicants who are no longer compelled to visit the local bureaucracy in order to receive service.

The economic downturn presented Oklahoma policy developers leaders with the necessity of cutting costs and becoming more efficient by adopting better practices for the incorporation of technology. Instead of reducing the level of service, this type of modernization will make accessing government services more convenient than ever before. As legislators, we should view the reduction of government revenue as being an opportunity for the government not only to become leaner but also more user friendly.

These types of technology upgrades should have occurred years ago. However, the lack of a need for cutting costs allowed inefficiency and inconveniences to remain a part of the system for several years.

For instance, applicants for motor vehicle tag renewals were not able to renew their licenses online for many years. Because of House Bill 1032, the Oklahoma Tax Commission is now preparing to offer online renewals of drivers licenses. Not to be outdone and very much concerned about a loss of revenue, Oklahoma tag agents are asking that legislation be placed into law mandating that tag agent operations also be made available online. This is just one example of where a technological improvement that should have happened years ago is now happening not only in state government but with the vendors who provide the service through state government.

The principle of making government more responsive and accessible to citizens should also be used in order to allow this same type of convenience to state agencies. By viewing state agencies as customers and allowing them to take advantage of shared services, it will be easier for agencies to deal with budget reductions by offering them more convenience and freeing them up to focus on their core missions.

The next round of modernization legislation should promote efficiency and savings through the shared use of services between state agencies. This will lead to the breaking down of bureaucratic barriers which unnecessarily wastes so many taxpayer dollars each year. Next week, I intend to write in more detail about some of the plans for enabling these services.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Senator Gumm’s “Senate Minute” for Nov. 6-12, 2009 - Clear the Smoke, Cut the Deal and Restore the Funding

DURANT, Okla. – Hello again, everybody! As I write this, a proposal is on the table that would restore funding toOklahoma’s senior nutrition sites.

The senior nutrition program is one of the programs hardest hit by the budget cuts every agency is enduring because of declining tax collections. Affects of the national economic slowdown have finally reached Oklahoma. Because of declining tax collections, state agencies have already taken a 5 percent cut from the budget the Legislature passed in May.

As part of the Department of Human Services’ response to their cut, the Human Services Commission slashed $7.4 million from the senior nutrition program. In our area, that meant four senior nutrition sites lost funding. Those locations are Caddo, Calera,
Kingston and Wapanucka.

When we first learned of the cuts, I was among the first to call for a solution, up to and including special session if necessary, to restore funding to these sites.

There is money to it. Our state’s “Rainy Day” fund is full; also, we in the Legislature put aside about $600 million in the federal stimulus dollars allocated to
Oklahoma for use in writing next year’s budget. Dollars from either of those sources could be used. While we still face continued difficult economic news, the cuts to the senior nutrition program could be restored.

Earlier this week, we learned the governor and the director of the Department of Human Services have agreed to shift dollars within that agency to restore the senior nutrition cuts. That should allow all the nutrition sites to reopen. There is, however, a catch.

The money that would be moved to plug the senior nutrition budget hole is money committed for programs later in the year. The only way this deal is done is if the House Speaker and Senate president pro tempore agree to push a bill to restore that money to the Department of Human Services when the Legislature returns for the 2010 session in February.

I strongly support the proposal; it is a solid, good compromise, and the Speaker and president pro tempore ought to agree immediately. The deal would allow the senior nutrition sites to reopen without a costly special session of the Legislature.

Further, it shows the respect for “the greatest generation” they have more than earned. More importantly, the proposal would ensure that while
Oklahoma is going to endure difficult budget cuts, we will not balance the state budget on the backs of our senior citizens.

This issue has been the source of partisan bickering, finger-pointing, grandstanding and a smokescreen of press releases from both parties. Oklahomans do not care in the least about backroom political games; they care about senior citizens.

My message to both sides in this dispute has been simple and clear: Clear the smoke, cut the deal and restore the funding.
Oklahoma’s senior citizens deserve no less.

Thanks again for reading the “Senate Minute,” have a great week, and may God bless you all.

Senator Gumm's "Senate Minute" Column for Oct. 30-Nov. 5 - Firefighters Are Heroes; Volunteer Fire Departments Vital

DURANT, Okla.Hello again, everybody! We all learn as children that October is Fire Prevention Month; as October gives way to November, fire safety is no less important.

Throughout October, school children were given tours of fire stations and learn lessons on how to prevent fires and what to do during a fire. During the tours, children – and often their parents – get to see a small glimpse of what it takes to be a firefighter, the commitment these men and women make to all of us.

November has its own importance in the battle against fire. Volunteer fire departments across rural Oklahoma will get the operational checks funded by the Legislature. In my entire Senate district, only Durant has a full-time fire department; all the others are all-volunteer or combination fire departments.

In fact, most of the area of this state is served by volunteer fire departments. They largely depend on benefit suppers, craft fairs, membership dues and donations. During the great Winter Fires of 2005, volunteer fire fighters across Oklahoma were on the front lines fighting those fires, protecting lives and property.

Those fires were a wake-up call to our state, reminding even those who live in metropolitan areas of the importance of rural volunteer fire departments. The fires also gave those of us who support volunteer fire departments an opportunity to increase funding for this critical program.

When I was first elected to the Senate seven years ago, every rural fire department received a $2,300 check to help cover operational costs. It was not nearly enough.

In the past seven years, we have been able to more than double that amount to an annual operational check of $5,100 for every volunteer fire department in the state. This operational money helps with the costs of simply being ready to protect our families, homes and businesses.

While still not enough to cover all the costs of these fire departments, it is a huge help. Other programs initiated by those of us in the Legislature who believe in rural fire protection have helped purchase new trucks for dozens of rural fire departments, including many across Atoka, Bryan, Coal, Johnston and Marshall counties.

Volunteer fire departments get just about the biggest “bang for the buck” of anything funded with our tax dollars. Every dollar we spend on rural fire department helps keep our families safe, keeps fire insurance rates as low as possible. In short, these dollars save us money and save lives – and it is a program I will always support.

As we end the month when we are reminded about fire safety, it is a great time for all of us to tell firefighters – volunteer and full-time – that we appreciate what they do for us. Every firefighter is a hero, and we should always stand behind them – because they are always there for us.

Thanks again for reading the “Senate Minute,” have a great week, and may God bless you all.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Realizing Savings Through the Implementation of a Technology Strategy

Last year as part of the House Modernization agenda, House Bill 1170 introduced the important step of requiring the state Chief Information Officer to consider the incorporation of innovative and low cost technology components in Oklahoma's IT strategy. The bill seeks to recognize the fact that the days of state government being forced to expend millions on expensive licensing agreements are in fact limited.

It is important for us to build on this momentum and advance additional legislation that encourages taxpayer cost-savings through the implementation of low cost technology options. Needless to say, some technology special interest groups may be very opposed to innovative low cost solutions. However across other government entities and inside of private corporations, low cost technology solutions are becoming more and more prevalent as these groups seek to save money.

These types of technology innovations can not only provide cost savings capabilities to state agencies, but also add convenience to those who need to interact with state government. For example, Oklahoma purchasing officers have in the past sometimes been hesitant to engage in private communications with prospective vendors once those vendors were committed to bidding on providing services to state government. Understandably, the purchasing officers did not want to be seen as providing a preference to a specific vendor and did not want to be accused of providing the vendor with information that allowed them to have an inside track on developing a successful bid. This unfortunate communication block may have been responsible for costing the taxpayers money, as other qualified bidders did not compete for state business because they were not sure about the bid details and did not want to risk incurring obligations they could not make a profit on.

Now, however, shared documentation could provide the solution to this type of problem at almost no cost to the state by allowing purchasing officials to respond to vendor inquiries in a public manner through a collaborative application that allows everyone to see the questions and the responses and eases the favoritism concern.

For example, all requests for proposals (RFPs) for contracts could be posted in a series of public collaborative documents with all bid specs having available attachments. Supplementary data such as attendee lists from any relevant public hearings could be posted, along with videos of hearings and RFP presentations. Most importantly, communications with the potential vendors on the RFPs would also be posted.

This type of openness would make it very hard for secret deals to ever be made behind closed doors.

In addition, I believe next year's modernization legislation should enable Oklahoma's Chief Information Officer to encourage a concept known as crowdsourcing. This effort begins when state agencies make sets of data easily available to the public. The use of these data will enable third-party application developers to analyze the data and produce informative applications that will allow the citizens to hold government responsible like never before.

These are some of the concepts I hope we are able to advance with next year's modernization legislation.