Commentary: Abolishing Labor Department an Idea Worth Considering

Article excerpt

Abolishing the office of state labor commissioner is an idea worth examining regardless of the outcome of the election Tuesday.

One of the highlights of a bitter intra-party battle for the Republican nomination for state labor commissioner between incumbent Brenda Reneau Wynn and Rep. Tim Pope, R-Mustang, has been his proposal to do away with the office entirely.

It is an interesting political gambit for a candidate to advocate the abolition of an office he is seeking. Apparently the idea has caught on among voters as he has gained in the polls.

If Pope loses in either the primary or general election, chances are the idea will fade away. Reneau Wynn is opposed to it, and Rep. Lloyd Fields, D-McAlester, who is seeking the Democratic nomination, also is against it.

The Oklahoma Department of Labor, headed by a labor commissioner, was created as an elective office by the original Oklahoma Constitution. It was one of a long list of elected executive offices, some of which have since been abolished.

While it is a constitutional agency, its duties are prescribed by law. Art. 6 section 20 of the constitution simply states:

"A Department of Labor is hereby created to be under the control of a commissioner of labor whose duties shall be prescribed by law."

It would pose no constitutional problem for the Legislature to eliminate or transfer all or part of the duties. But it would take a constitution amendment to abolish the office.

Pope's plan calls for dispersing labor department functions among several other existing state agencies. The study was conducted by him, Rep. Bill Graves, R-OKC, Rep. Ray Young, R-Yukon, and Judy Monroe, a 25-year labor department employee.

Interestingly, the report was endorsed by a former chief of staff, and two former deputy commissioners during Reneau Wynn's tenure.

It recommends putting asbestos inspections under the Department of Environmental Quality. The Safety Standards division, which inspects boilers, pressure vessels and hot water heaters, as well as amusement rides and weld test facilities, goes to the Department of Health.

It is worth noting boiler and pressure vessel inspections for oilfield operations were transferred to the Oklahoma Corporation Commission by the Legislature this year. This was done over the bitter opposition of the current labor commissioner.

Mickey Thompson, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association, in the July issue of the association's magazine said "the bill moved through the Legislature with only token opposition until the labor commissioner began lobbing grenades at the governor's office.

"The labor commissioner whined loud enough and long enough to obfuscate the issue," Thompson said in the magazine.

According to Thompson, this caused the governor to veto the measure, which was authored in the House by Fields. On a second attempt, the language was put in another measure and the governor was persuaded to sign it.

Campaign gimmick?

Another labor department function that would be transferred to the health department is the public sector version of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. It is an enforcement division with authority to inspect all public agencies including state, city, county, and political subdivisions.

The department's other OSHA functions would go to the career- tech agency. Currently the department provides a free consultation program to private employees. Its efforts are targeted mainly to high-hazard industry with employees totaling 250 or less. It also performs facility inspections for OSHA compliance. …