A state lawmaker has introduced legislation to restore the powers of a commission that oversees the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department. The bill follows The Frontier’s reporting on a lack of oversight on spending for Swadley’s Foggy Bottom Kitchen restaurants at state parks.
Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has filed Senate Bill 4 which would restore oversight powers to the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Commission.
Legislation in 2018 stripped the board’s authority as part of an effort to take decision-making authority away from disparate state boards and consolidate power under agency leaders appointed by the governor. Then-Gov. Mary Fallin signed the bill near the end of her second term.
Thompson’s bill would give the commission control over approving contracts again as well as the power to hire and fire the executive director of Tourism and Recreation. In an interview, Thompson said he realized he needed to file this bill after the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency released a report that was critical of Tourism and Recreation spending.
“This was one of the recommendations from LOFT and my thought process is we must protect the taxpayers,” Thompson said in an interview. “We need more than one set of eyes on it and the direct appointment did not work.”
The Frontier first reported in March on a state contractor’s questionable spending to launch the Swadley’s Foggy Bottom chain of restaurants at state parks. Costs for the Foggy Bottom restaurants ballooned to $16.7 million as the Department of Tourism and Recreation reimbursed the company for its financial losses and covered other costs. Foggy Bottom also charged extra fees on top of some expenses it billed to the state, as The Frontier first reported.
Thompson said he expects a “little bit of pushback” but hopes the bill will help add accountability for spending on state tourism. State lawmakers have been hesitant to put federal pandemic stimulus funding toward tourism without more oversight, he said.
“We need to define what’s best for the state of Oklahoma and I think it’s going to be a timely conversation as we look at how we fund tourism in the future,” he said.