The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

April 23, 2013

Sen. Anderson, Fallin at odds over NORCE closing process

By Wayne Greene, Tulsa World
Tulsa World

OKLAHOMA CITY — A Republican state senator says Gov. Mary Fallin and her staff are freezing him out — refusing to take his calls or meet with a group of his constituents on a key issue.

While Fallin administration emails show top aides considering such a move toward Sen. Patrick Anderson, R-Enid, a spokesman for the governor says that hasn’t happened.

“I would say that they have lived up to their statement,” Anderson said.

Last March, Anderson said, he had his legislative assistant ask the Governor’s Office for a meeting with constituents concerned about plans to close the Northern Oklahoma Resource Center, a state care center for the developmentally disabled in Enid. Anderson said his assistant followed up that request for six months, but Fallin was never available.

“I was consistently told that the governor was out of town, she didn’t have time,” Anderson said.Public records released by the Governor’s Office last month show Fallin’s top aides clearly angry at Anderson, after he issued a July press release calling for a more aggressive resistance to “Obamacare.”

At the time, Fallin had put off two key decisions concerning the Affordable Care Act — whether to accept Medicaid expansion funding from the bill, and whether the state should build a health insurance exchange to accommodate the law. Fallin had said the federal health care law was unworkable and unaffordable, but she wanted to put off a decision until after November’s presidential election.

Anderson’s press release pushed her to move faster.

“Fallin needs to be on the front line with those governors who have already announced they won’t submit to the federal health care law,” Anderson said in his press release. “Gov. Fallin needs to make Oklahoma’s position clear and tell President Obama that she will not choose to implement this new tax on the taxpayers of Oklahoma.”

When she received an electronic copy of Anderson’s press release, Katie Altshuler, policy director for Fallin, wrote, “How about no mtg w/him on anything!!!” in an email to several senior Fallin staff members.

Fallin Chief of Staff Denise Northrup responded, “What a piece of work!”

Emails released by Anderson show that at the time of Altshuler’s comment, his legislative assistant was involved in a daily effort to arrange Anderson’s requested meeting for his constituents concerning the resource center.

The notes are unprofessional, Anderson said.

“I think it also indicates the way they operate the Governor’s Office,” he said.

When Brad Henry, a Democrat, was governor, Anderson said, they would disagree, but at least the governor would return his calls.

Despite the emails, Anderson said he doesn’t think his cold treatment from the Governor’s Office actually traces back to his July press release.

Eventually, Fallin came around to exactly the policies Anderson was urging concerning the Affordable Care Act, although “Obviously, it wasn’t the position the governor wanted to take,” Anderson said.

Anderson said he thinks Fallin and her staff are freezing out his constituents because she is determined to close the Northern Oklahoma Resource Center and doesn’t want to hear any thoughts to the contrary at this point.

“I think (the press release) was just their excuse for not wanting to meet with me,” Anderson said. “I was asking for a meeting previously on the (Northern Oklahoma Resource Center) situation, and I was seeking a meeting afterwards.”

Fallin seems to have made up her mind on the center’s closing and isn’t interested in hearing other points of view, he said.

“I think the governor’s course is definitely set on this issue,” he said.

“It’s very frustrating, especially since we’re in the same party,” Anderson said. “We may be of different opinions on issues, but I was hopeful Gov. Fallin would be more open to listening to other opinions than she has been so far.”

Fallin’s office responds

Anderson has been an aggressive and sometimes controversial advocate on the issue of keeping the Enid center open.

Oklahoma Human Services Commission Chairman Wes Lane threatened to have Anderson removed from a November meeting of the commission after Anderson tried to argue the issue. Lane said no public comment on the issue was to be taken at the meeting, where the commission later voted to close the center.

Five days later, state voters approved a measure dissolving the commission.

Internal Governor’s Office records obtained by the Enid News & Eagle again show the governor’s staff worrying over a press release from Anderson on the issue at about that same time.

In an Oct. 31 press release, Anderson complained about short notice on the meeting, where the commission decided to close the Enid center.

“The result of the vote would be to force the state’s most vulnerable and severely disabled citizens out on the streets,” Anderson said in the release.

Northrup forwarded a copy of the press release to Lane with a note saying, “I assume you saw this.”

In an email, Lane responded: “Indeed ... proof that the failure to spank a child can at times result in future problems as an adult.”

A spokesman for Fallin said there is no official policy against taking meetings with Anderson, although the Governor’s Office has issues with the way Anderson has addressed the resource center issue.

“(W)e have no interest in helping him terrify the parents and guardians of individuals with disabilities, as he has shown an unfortunate willingness to do,” said spokesman Alex Weintz.

“Our administration understands that when policy decisions of this magnitude are made, they do not lend themselves to consensus,” Weintz said. “We expect to be criticized by those who disagree, sometimes pointedly, and we do not take that criticism personally.”

Many legislators support the decision to close the Enid center and others have criticized the human services commission’s decision in a reasonable and respectful manner, he said.

“The exception to that rule was Sen. Patrick Anderson, whose arguments seemed designed to stoke the fears of vulnerable parents and guardians concerned about the well-being of those they have custody over,” Weintz said. “In one press release, consistent with Sen. Anderson’s over-the-top rhetoric, he told his constituents that the governor and the DHS commission were ‘throwing the disabled out on the streets.’”

No residents of NORCE or the Southern Oklahoma Resource Center in Pauls Valley, which also is targeted for closure, are being denied services or abandoned, Weintz said.

“For the senator to suggest otherwise is disingenuous,” he said.

Closure decision a mistake

On Sept. 21, Fallin met with Anderson, Sen. Susan Paddock, D-Ada; Rep. Mike Jackson, R-Enid; and Rep. Lisa Billy, R-Lindsay, about the closure of the two facilities, Weintz said.

She also met with the Parent Guardian Association, a group of parents opposed to the closure of either facility, the same day, he said.

“She spent a great deal of time listening to their concerns and took them seriously,” Weintz said.

During the deliberation process, Fallin took pains to gather input from many people who would be affected and she personally toured both facilities, Weintz said

Anderson said the group he wanted Fallin to meet represented Enid leaders, not parents, who were concerned about the move.

Jackson, the second-ranking member of the state House, said the closing of the Enid facility is an emotional one.

“I represent the same folks that (Sen. Anderson) does, and they do have some legitimate concerns,” Jackson said. “I was also trying to encourage a meeting because we do have a lot of people who are concerned about the decision that was made.”

Ultimately, Fallin came to the conclusion that closing the two facilities was in the best interest of the state and of Oklahomans with developmental disabilities, Weintz said.

State officials are assisting residents and their families in the transition, and Fallin has created a blue-ribbon panel to address the state’s waiting list for services to the developmentally disabled, he said.

“The transition of (the two centers’) residents to community homes and service providers has been going well,” Weintz said. “Her goal is to provide the highest quality services to the greatest number of Oklahomans.”

Jackson said the decision to close the facilities was a mistake and one he still hopes to reverse, although it would be “very difficult” to change the state policy, if the governor is determined to proceed.

Tulsa World Staff Writer Jarrel Wade contributed to this report.