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Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt quietly replaces cabinet with 'chief advisors'

Kevin Stitt (center) makes his way past an applauding Attorney General Gentner Drummond (right) at the 2023 State of the State Address.
Legislative Service Bureau
Kevin Stitt (center) makes his way past an applauding Attorney General Gentner Drummond (right) at the 2023 State of the State Address.

Oklahoma law prohibits state officials from holding more than one office and collecting more than one government salary.

Attorney General Gentner Drummond and a district court judge say this means state agency heads cannot also serve in the governor’s cabinet. But as first noted by Shawn Ashley of legislative watchdog Quorum Call, Gov. Kevin Stitt appears to have found a workaround.

As recently as last month, the Governor’s website had a page titled “Meet your Cabinet Secretaries.” As of June 18, that URL throws an error that says “The page you are looking for cannot be found, has been moved or has been deleted.”

Instead, the Governor’s website now has a page listing “Governor Stitt’s Chief Advisors.” The advisors very closely mirror what used to be Stitt’s cabinet.

“The Governor began to consider making this change when it became clear that a certain public official was increasingly interested in targeting public servants for political purposes,” wrote Meyer Siegried, Stitt’s Press Secretary. “The sentiment was further solidified when the Senate chose to abdicate its duties to provide advice and consent to the Governor’s nominations and not even hold hearings on two of his cabinet nominations this session.”

Earlier this year, Drummond issued an opinion saying because the state Constitution prohibits state officials from holding more than one office, agency heads can’t also serve on the Governor’s cabinet. He specifically aimed the opinion at Tim Gatz, who was then a triple-threat state official: Director of the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority, Director of the Oklahoma Department of Transportation and Secretary of Transportation.

The opinion also applied to two other then-cabinet members: Lt. Gov. and Secretary of Workforce Development Matt Pinnell and Oklahoma Department of Tourism Director and Secretary of Tourism, Wildlife and Heritage Shelley Zumwalt.

Pinnell, Zumwalt and Gatz all resigned from their cabinet positions; Gatz also resigned as OTA Director. After Stitt and three cabinet members sued the AG, a district judge upheld Drummond’s order earlier this month.

But now, Gatz is back — not as a cabinet member, but as the Governor’s Chief Transportation Advisor. The advisory positions that correspond with Zumwalt’s and Pinnell’s former cabinet roles remain vacant. The Governor’s office did not respond to a question about why Secretary of Health and Mental Health Dr. Corey Finch and Secretary of Human Services Dr. Deborah Shropshire are also missing from the new list of advisors.

“The Governor never saw the dual office holding provisions as applicable to cabinet secretaries (See 74 O.S. § 10.3), and he still does not view it as applicable,” read a statement from Stitt’s office. “The law could hardly be clearer, and the judge’s recent decision will be appealed.”

The referenced state statute does indicate that agency heads can be appointed to a governor’s cabinet. But the district judge’s opinion said the language is ambiguous and in conflict with an earlier, clearer statute. That says “no person holding an office under the laws of the state and no deputy of any officer so holding any office shall, during the person's term of office, hold any other office or be the deputy of any officer holding any office.”

State law doesn’t create a framework for a group of appointed “chief advisors.” As Quorum Call noted, the term only appears once in state statute. It mentions that the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management should be the governor’s “chief advisor” on emergency management issues. Stitt doesn’t appear to be operating within this description, since the director of OEM is not included among his list of advisors.

Stitt’s office did not answer questions about how these advisory roles would differ from cabinet appointments. It’s also unclear whether or how much these advisors will be paid.

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Graycen Wheeler is a reporter covering water issues at KOSU as a corps member with Report for America.
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