He has a law degree, decades of experience and a proven track record in public health.
But Gary Cox, the governor’s pick to run the Oklahoma State Department of Health, doesn’t have a master’s degree in science, one of the statutory requirements to serve as health commissioner.
Cox is now Gov. Kevin Stitt’s second pick for an agency director who doesn’t meet the requirements to hold the job under the law. Oklahoma Watch reported recently that Stitt’s pick for acting secretary at the Commissioners of the Land Office, Brandt Vawter, also doesn’t meet the requirements for the permanent job because he doesn’t have an advanced degree; he has a bachelor’s in economics.
In Cox’s case, Stitt’s office said he intends to ask the Legislature to change the job requirements. Cox will need to be confirmed by the Senate. Stitt’s office said if things go smoothly at the Land Office, he will also seek a change in law to allow Vawter to become permanent secretary. The Land Office’s five-person commission, which includes the governor, approves the director without Senate confirmation.
Stitt’s communication director, Baylee Lakey, said the governor is looking for the best leaders he can find for each position and pointed to Cox’s tenure at city-county health departments in Oklahoma and Tulsa counties.
“We respect the reasoning for educational requirements. However, we are also hopeful the Legislature will recognize that successful track records and professional tenure can offer equal, if not stronger, value for leading Oklahoma’s state agencies,” Lakey said in a statement.
The Legislature in March granted Stitt new powers to directly appoint the leaders of five state agencies who were previously selected by an agency governing board or commission: the Oklahoma Department of Transportation; Office of Juvenile Affairs; Health Care Authority; Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, and Department of Corrections. Those picks must also be confirmed by the Senate.
“The governor’s office has not reached out to the pro tempore’s office to discuss the possibility of changing the law on the Health Department qualifications,” said Aaron Cooper, spokesman for Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City. “The Senate is always open to discussing policy ideas with the governor’s office.”
Lawmakers and former Gov. Mary Fallin in 2018 changed the commissioner of health to a gubernatorial appointment in the wake of a financial scandal at the Health Department. Tom Bates had been serving as interim health commissioner since April 2018 but stepped down in August to take a new role with the Stitt administration at the Health Care Authority. Bates, an attorney, did not qualify either, but that was not a reason given for his move to the Health Care Authority.
A review of the job requirements for a dozen governor-appointed agency directors shows just the health commissioner with defined educational requirements. The commissioner must have one of the following: a doctor-of-medicine degree and license; an osteopathic degree and license; a doctoral degree in public health or public health administration; or a master’s degree in science. Cox has a bachelor’s in education and history, with a minor in science.
One director position, the adjutant general, has a non-educational requirement: to be at least a colonel in the state or federal National Guard.