June 2016 Editorial Winner

It won't hurt
Wayne Trotter, Countywide & Sun

Even though a majority of state voters approved its creation in 2000, most Oklahomans probably don’t know what the Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust or TSET is or what it does. Mostly it does good things such as convincing people to stop using tobacco, funding tobacco-related cancer research and sponsoring health programs. TSET is not supported by taxes but instead gets its money from a settlement Oklahoma and 45 other states made with the tobacco industry. The trust gets 75 percent of the annual payment made by the industry with the other 25 percent going to the legislature and attorney general. In 2015, TSET received $58 million as its share of that year’s payment.
In other words, TSET is not broke nor is it bothered by regional ups and downs such as energy booms or oil recessions. When TSET gets in the news, it’s usually in a positive way. After all, most of what it does is good.
But not everything.
A couple of weeks ago, TSET’s board of directors hired Patrice Douglas as its chief executive officer. She has the credentials. She was twice elected mayor of Edmond and was appointed to the Corporation Commission by Gov. Mary Fallin. She subsequently was elected to the commission. Pottawatomie County residents may remember her best because she made a run to fill the Fifth District congressional seat and become our congresswoman two years ago. This newspaper endorsed her. She made the runoff but lost to Steve Russell.
TSET put out a press release about its new hire. From a government standpoint, it was a good, well-written release. It revealed everything except Ms. Douglas’ salary. That was left for those sneaky, nosy reporters.
How much? Two hundred and fifty grand a year. That’s $103,000 more than the $147,000 Fallin earns as governor and more than double the $120,000 being paid the current executive director. And that individual is going to hang around in some capacity.
No doubt about it. A quarter of a million is way too much, especially considering the condition of other state agencies that are not funded by a steady flow of guaranteed cash.
Gov. Fallin agrees. She said this: “This salary sends the wrong message when our state is facing a difficult economic and budget climate. These are public trust funds and the public will lose trust in this important agency if this salary takes effect.”
But the governor did more than that. She also asked Terry Cline, the secretary of health and human services, to do something. Acting under a hiring freeze that Fallin imposed last year, Cline says he will not sign the paperwork that would add Ms. Douglas to the payroll.
That’s fine. But it really is the responsibility of the trust to set this right. To date, Jim Gebhart, chairman of the trust’s board of directors, is sticking to his guns. “We are confident we have hired the right person who shares our board’s commitment to wisely provide much-needed funds to Oklahoma organizations devoted to making our state better by making Oklahomans healthier,” he commented.
Well, you’re right, Mr. Gebhart. You hired the right person. But you and your board set the wrong salary. It needs to come down a long way. If Ms. Douglas isn’t willing to work with you on that, you’ll have to look for someone else.

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