COMMENTARY: For OK Labor Commissioner Costello, ‘right-sizing’ is more than a slogan
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Published: 04-Dec-2013

OKLAHOMA CITY – Only a few states elect their commissioners of labor, and Oklahoma is one of them.

Until 1994, the Sooner State’s labor post was always held by a pro-union Democrat. After a 12-year Republican interregnum under Brenda Reneau, the position returned to the hands of an activist union sympathizer in 2006, the worst election year for the Oklahoma GOP in modern state history. 

Then, in the Republican tidal wave of 2010, every statewide elected position returned to the party of Lincoln. 

Mark Costello entered office in 2011 with a right-to-work amendment (approved by voters in 2001) already in place, but has pressed for further pro-business policies – including the workers’ comp reforms passed last year and personnel cuts at his own agency. 

He is the only statewide official to talk regularly about paycheck protection for public employees, saying government should not be a dues collector for either unions or associations. 

Costello regularly touts entrepreneurship, has pushed for technological improvements in delivery of agency services, and has advocated “ paycheck protection” to reduce the power of public employee associations and unions.

When the federal sequestration cuts were implemented last spring, Costello moved faster than any other state government official, closing the Department of Labor’s Tulsa office, and offering a voluntary buy-out (VBO) to 15 employees there.  

Costello’s agency administers safety and other programs that are well-regarded in the business community yet funded with federal resources. He is among the first to say in nearly every speech that 40 percent of Oklahoma’s annual state spending flows from federal sources. 

Costello occasionally speaks out on issues beyond his direct supervision. He backed the workers’ compensation insurance reforms enacted last year, saying the state’s litigation-focused system rewarded the wrong parties and circulating a popular bumper sticker saying “Workers’ comp, not Lawyers’ comp.” 

He was the first Republican official to oppose a pay hike for state judges, recommended in October by the Board on Judicial Compensation. Costello noted at the time, “Of the 305 judges and elected officials this proposed pay raise effects; all are paid over $100,000 a year, some of the best pay within state government. When judges and state officials sought office the compensation was well understood.”

Most of Costello’s fiscal discipline has involved classic “nipping-and tucking,” including elimination of that Tulsa office. However, he also studies government “best practices,” has reallocated resources internally to trim spending and save several hundred thousand dollars a year. The agency took the lead in working with the information technology staff in the Office of Management and Enterprise Services (OMES), Gov. Mary Fallin’s point team for promoting technological efficiencies. 

As for business expansion, Costello’s staff reached agreement with the tax-financed CareerTech system to provide testing services at school sites, and reduce administrative costs for required licenses and other services. He regularly honors growing businesses with an “Entrepreneurial Excellence in Oklahoma Award.

Costello eliminated a Deputy Commissioner’s slot to save money, rebuffed a computer order by his Democratic predecessor and slashed out-of-state travel. 

State Rep. Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie, has led the charge for “right-sizing” in state government. He often encounters agency staff opposition or foot-dragging in the process he is guiding for the Republican House majority. But not from the Labor Commissioner. Murphey said, “Costello is providing an example of an office holder who is resisting the temptation to cover up savings in order to lobby for more taxpayer dollars even though state government has more money to spend next year.” 

His personal modeling has enhanced the fiscal conservative reputation he explicitly seeks.

A successful businessman before his 2010 campaign, Costello uses a  personal vehicle for his speaking engagements (450 across the state since early 2011), and has clocked some 100,000 miles so far. He turned down the state-financed car for his use, converted the agency’s remaining fleet to an in-house operation, and refuses reimbursement for is travel expenses.

Commissioner Costello’s view of taxation is classical Liberal, i.e. conservative libertarian: “Every dollars removed from the taxpayers’ pocket to fund excess and waste in state government is a dollar removed from private sector job creation.” 

In an interview with Oklahoma Watchdog, Costello said “right-sizing” Oklahoma government is achievable and, “most importantly, the right thing to do.” 

With Gov. Mary Fallin hinting at another round of state government spending hikes, Costello is setting his own course, shrinking expenditures in his corner of government, and imposing fiscal restraints for the remaining functions.

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