OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The last few years have been grindingly tough for state government in Oklahoma as plunging oil prices decimated tax revenues, forcing agencies to lay off employees, shutter offices and scale back services.
But you wouldn’t know that by looking at the office of Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who has been nominated by President-elect Donald Trump to become director of the Environmental Protection Agency. While living in the same harsh fiscal climate and preaching small-government conservatism, Pruitt has managed to increase his office’s expenses by 40 percent and add nearly 60 employees since taking over, creating a dynamo for legal attacks on the Obama administration and a launching pad for his political career.
Ambitious conservatives abound in deep-red Oklahoma, but the 48-year-old Pruitt has become known for an extraordinary talent for expanding his power and budget. This drive and ingenuity will soon be trained on a federal agency that has long been a nemesis for the GOP’s right wing.
“He’s known to be a fighter,” said Oklahoma Republican Gov. Mary Fallin, whose own general counsel was pushed out after Pruitt made him a target over several flawed executions. “He’s taken stances and led the charge.”
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And he’s not worried about appearances.
While other agencies downsized, Pruitt moved the satellite state office near his suburban Tulsa home into the luxurious Bank of America Tower, more than tripling its rent and increasing its space to more than 10,000 square feet.
A native of Kentucky who got his law degree in Tulsa, Pruitt has been attracting attention for his boldness since he knocked off a seemingly safe Republican state senator by mobilizing members of his large suburban church, the First Baptist Church of Broken Arrow.
“There are a number of people who cross your path, and I’ve come across a lot of them in my career in the military, politics and law, who are great self-promoters, and he’s one of them. Maybe that’s what you’ve got to do,” said former GOP state Sen. Ged Wright, who lost the 1998 race.
After making unsuccessful bids for Congress and lieutenant governor, Pruitt won the race for Oklahoma attorney general in 2010, and quickly began making the job bigger.
A staff of 149 employees in 2011 grew to 207 this year. Expenditures jumped from about $28 million to more than $37.5 million last year.
“Why this particular agency seems to receive some favoritism is kind of a quandary in my mind,” said outgoing Republican Rep. Paul Wesselhoft, among those mystified by Pruitt’s bureaucratic audacity.
Meanwhile, a state budget hole that grew to $1.3 billion last year — nearly 20 percent of spending — led to cuts across state agencies, including 1,200 jobs at the Department of Human Services alone since 2014.
Pruitt’s growth came from tapping other agencies’ budgets and collecting more fines, fees and settlements. His office completely absorbed the state Human Rights Commission, which had a $500,000 budget, and took over the legal work of more than two dozen smaller boards, convincing the Legislature that the consolidation was more efficient.
A Pruitt spokeswoman said the consolidation saved millions of dollars, freeing up revenue for other state services.
At the same time, Pruitt raised his office’s legal sights to national political targets.
One innovation, a “federalism unit,” was assigned to look for examples of overreaching federal government. In his first year in office, he filed lawsuits challenging President Obama’s health care law and the EPA, the first of several against the federal government.
Pruitt’s splashy challenges earned him invitations to pen editorial page articles for The Wall Street Journal and to appear on national political talk shows.
“As Attorney General I plan to do all that I can to protect and preserve the state’s authority and responsibility under the Clean Air Act to craft and implement solutions for our state,” Pruitt said just three months after taking office.
Not growing was the office’s environmental protection unit, which included several attorneys and an investigator charged with probing illegal pollution cases. It has been essentially disbanded, dropped from the list of divisions on the agency’s website.
Pruitt has declined repeated requests for interviews since meeting with president-elect Trump, but a spokesman for his office said in a statement that environmental cases now are being handled by the agency’s new solicitor general’s unit.
“Under the leadership of AG Pruitt, this team has held bad actors accountable and protected stewardship of Oklahoma’s natural resources,” said spokesman Lincoln Ferguson.
Ferguson cited the settlement of a water rights lawsuit between the state and Native American tribes and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling against a Texas water district seeking access to Oklahoma water.
Critics of Pruitt say his expanded operations have produced more publicity for Pruitt than tangible results for the state.
“I know the attorney general has sued the federal government several times, and the state of Colorado, and he’s had to defend a lot of unconstitutional measures that the Republican majority has passed,” said Rep. Eric Proctor, a Tulsa Democrat critical of Pruitt’s spending. “They evidently have prioritized that at a greater level than they have prioritized public education.”
Pruitt’s challenge to the federal health care law failed, but his defense of Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocol did prevail. Many of his lawsuits against federal agencies remain tied up in court.
Clearly successful, however, has been his campaign fund-raising. Though running unopposed in 2014, he brought in more than $700,000, much of it from energy industry donors.
Pruitt’s new appointment may divert him from an expected race for governor in 2018.
In an interview with The Associated Press earlier this year, he said he doesn’t worry about making political plans too far ahead.
“The long and short of it is: there will be opportunities,” he said.
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