Sunday, May 17, 2009

Weekly Opinion/Editorial

TAG, you're it!

by Steve Fair

Political patronage is the use of state resources to reward individuals for their electoral support. In some countries, including the US, patronage is legal, as in the British and Canadian tradition of allowing the Prime Minister to appoint the heads of a number of commissions and agencies; in most cases, these appointments go to people who have supported the political party of the Prime Minister. In the United States, when a President is elected, he fills his cabinet with like-minded people. In the early years of our nation’s history, political patronage was standard operating procedure. In fact, political patronage was the motive in the assassination of President James Garfield in 1881 by a disgruntled office seeker who did not receive a political appointment. That spurred Congress to pass the Civil Service Act, or Pendleton Act of 1883. Up until that time, if you worked for the government, it wasn’t what you knew, but who you knew.

In Oklahoma, political patronage has been practiced so well that is almost an art form. It reached its apex in the 1980s, when 240 county commissioners in Oklahoma were indicted by a federal grand jury in the county commissioner scandal. In terms of total number of elected officials indicted, it was the largest political scandal in American history.

Oklahoma has had two Democrat Governors convicted practicing political patronage. Governor David Hall served nineteen months in prison for participating in a political patronage kickback scheme. Governor David Walters pled guilty to a misdemeanor election violation as opposed to felony charges after numerous former campaign aides testified to illegal political patronage activities in his campaign organization. The aides alleged that Walters was promising jobs for campaign donations.

One of the long-term patronage appointments in Oklahoma may be on it’s way out. President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee has gotten bi-partisan approval on a bill to end the Senate’s present tag agency patronage system. Coffee’s bill would prohibit legislators from recommending tag agents to the Tax Commission. Traditionally, the State Senator would “recommend” to the Commission those in his district he thought would be good tag agents. Seldom was a “recommendation” turned down by the agency. Often, elected officials would “recommend” the appointment of their cronies and political donors as the counties’ tag agent.

It should be noted this “bi-partisan” effort happened in the first term after the Republicans took control of the Senate. If Senate Republicans had wanted to play hardball and be “fair,” they could have continued under the same patronage system the tag agencies have operated under for the next century. After all, changing the system during their century long majority rule of the legislature, never occurred to the Democrats.

In the past, when there were less tag agents, getting appointed tag agent in a county was quite a nice political plum. Often large counties had just one agent and all car tags expired the same month, so long lines were the order the day when you had to renew your tag. Today, tag agents don’t rake in the big bucks of agents in the past, but there is still no shortage of people who are willing to be appointed tag agent.

According to the Oklahoma Tax Commission web site, The Oklahoma Tax Commission administers the taxes and fees associated with the registration and tagging of vehicles. Although tag agencies are run by private individuals, the services they provide come from, and monies collected go to, the Oklahoma Tax Commission.”

Finding out specifics on how the Oklahoma Tax Commission compensates tag agents is harder to find than Jimmy Hoffa’s body. Tag agents are independent businesses and the Tax Commission establishes the fees they charge, but as to how much the agent makes is not readily available information. In most states, tags are purchased directly from the state, not through private enterprise. Privatizing or using independent businesses to handle that aspect of the state’s business may be more cost effective and efficient, but until the process is more transparent, John Q Public can’t determine that.

Coffee's bill will close a chapter on Oklahoma history that was not pretty. Appointing qualified ethical, principled people to be tag agents should be the goal of all citizens, not matter what their party affiliation of level of support for a State Senator.

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