Gov. Fallin names Andy Lester to State Regents, appoints others, announces FEMA approval

OKLAHOMA CITY — At the end of a challenging year for Oklahoma, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin took several executive actions, including  a a trio of appointments to governing boards.

She named Andy Lester to the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education earlier this month. 

Lester will replace Marlin “Ike” Glass Jr., whom Fallin thanked for his 18 years of service as a regent. Glass’s second nine-year term expires in May.

Lester, of Edmond, has served on the Board of Regents for Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical (A&M) Colleges since 2007. His appointment requires Senate confirmation.

Lester will continue to serve on the A&M board until the Senate approves his appointment.

“Andy has proven himself to be a champion for education,” Fallin said. “That is what our state needs as we try to close the skills gap that has left nearly 80,000 jobs unfilled in Oklahoma because of a lack of qualified candidates.”

Lester is a partner in the Edmond law firm Lester, Loving and Davies. His areas of emphasis include constitutional, employment, local government, civil rights and general business litigation.

He also has taught at the Oklahoma City University College of Law as an adjunct professor since 1988. He has also served brief stints as counsel to elements of state government in recent decades. 

Lester earned his law degree and a master’s degree in foreign service from Georgetown University in 1981. He graduated from Duke University in 1977 with a bachelor’s degree in history.

Lester is a deacon at First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City and has served on the board of advisors for the Salvation Army’s Oklahoma City command since 2002. He also is part of the Oklahoma Advisory Committee for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

The state regents coordinate Oklahoma’s system of 25 colleges and universities, 11 constituent agencies and two university centers.

Regents prescribe academic standards of higher education, determine functions and courses of study at state colleges and universities, grant degrees and approve each public college’s and university’s allocations, as well as tuition and fees within the limits set by the Oklahoma Legislature. Regents also manage scholarships and special programs.

On Dec. 23, Fallin elevated L. Michelle Stephens to the board of directors of the Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust (TSET) Fund. Stephens, of Weatherford, will succeed Lisa Nowlin and serve the remainder of a seven-year term that expires in June 2017.

Stephens, an attorney, previously served on the Oklahoma Commission for Human Services, state Board of Education and state Career Tech Board.

Stephens is the governor’s sole appointee to the seven-member TSET board, which is responsible for guiding the use of earnings from Oklahoma’s tobacco settlement trust fund to improve the health and well-being of state residents, particularly children and senior adults.

She is a trustee at Oklahoma Christian and president of the Weatherford Board of Education. She also is a member of the Oklahoma 4-H Volunteer Council and the State 4-H Horse Council. She and her husband, Weatherford dentist Dr. Brian Stephens, have two children.

TSET was created by a constitutional amendment in 2000, with funds from a 1998 multi-state lawsuit against the tobacco industry, a fund voters intended to be used to improve the health of all Oklahomans. The funds are placed in an endowment to ensure a growing funding source for generations.

TSET has largely limited its spending to aggressive tobaccao use abatement strategies, including large expenditures on television advertising.

The 1889 Institute, a relatively new Oklahoma state policy think tank, recently published a two-page fact sheet, “Oklahoma’s Billion-Dollar Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust,” discussing how states receive payments from tobacco companies.

One analyst who has followed TSET’s policy and spending patterns told CapitolBeatOK, “Of TSET’s roughly $963 million, the money is only being spent in a couple of the areas the constitution allows — namely on tobacco cessation and cancer research. Additional allowed uses include public education, after-school programs, and child health, among others.”

The chief executive also has re-appointed Rick Davis to the Board of Regents for Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical Colleges. He has served on the board since 2011, when he was appointed to fill an unexpired term.

Davis, of Guthrie, is one of the governor’s three at-large appointees to the nine-member board, which also includes the president of the Oklahoma State Board of Agriculture and representatives from each of Oklahoma’s five congressional districts.

He is a member of Harmony Community Church and the Guthrie Rotary Club, as well as serving on the board of the Logan County Farm Bureau since 1988.

Davis and his wife, Pam, have two adult children and one grandson.

On Tuesday (December 29), Fallin announced the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had approved the state’s request for disaster assistance for 18 counties related to the winter storm that began after Thanksgiving.

The approval means federal funding is available to assist municipalities, counties, rural electric cooperatives and the state with infrastructure repairs and costs associated with responding to the storm, which occurred between Nov. 27 and Nov. 29.

Disaster assistance was approved for Alfalfa, Beckham, Blaine, Caddo, Canadian, Custer, Dewey, Ellis, Grady, Grant, Kingfisher, Kiowa, Logan, Major, Oklahoma, Roger Mills, Washita and Woods counties.

According to preliminary damage assessments, the storm resulted in an estimated $19.7 million in damages and response costs in these counties alone.

The storm resulted in power outages for more than 125,000 homes and businesses statewide, as well as dangerous travel conditions in some areas. The storm was blamed for two deaths.

On Monday (Dec. 28), the chief executive extended a previously-announced state of emergency for all 77 Oklahoma counties due to the winter storm and flooding that continues to impact the state. An emergency declaration facilitates additional mutual aid, which includes oversized vehicles such as those transporting utility poles to the affected areas.

Fallin’s executive order allowed state agencies to make emergency purchases related to disaster relief and preparedness. 

It is also the first step toward seeking federal aid should it be necessary.

Another executive order temporarily suspended size and weights permits of oversized vehicles that are transporting materials and supplies used for storm relief.

NOTE: Pat McGuigan contributed to this report