Governor Mary Fallin has announced that she will appoint Melissa McLawhorn Houston to be the state’s labor commissioner until January 2019. Houston, who has been chief of staff and policy adviser for Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt since 2011, will serve the remainder of former Labor Commissioner Mark Costello’s term. Costello, who was re-elected in 2014, was murdered in August.
Houston is the daughter of Altus City Planner Barbara Burleson. Upon hearing the news Burleson said, “I’m very proud of her and extremely pleased that she has been given this opportunity and I know she will do a good job for our state as the Labor Commissioner.”
The commissioner of labor is responsible for the enforcement of labor laws that promote fairness and equity in the workforce, including state wage laws, workers’ compensation compliance, state Occupational Safety and Health Administration laws for public employers, child labor laws and various other duties. The safety standards division regulates welding practices as well as the installation, operation and maintenance of boilers, pressure vessels, hot water heaters, amusement rides and elevators. The licensing division issues alarm and locksmith, asbestos, welder, boiler operator, installer, elevator, certificate of competency, weld test facility, weld inspector, alternative fuels, and private employment agency licenses. The division also accepts payments for inspections and violations.
In a release by the Governor’s office, it noted that Houston is an experienced administrator with extensive knowledge of state government. Before serving as the attorney general’s chief of staff, Houston served for nine years (2002-2011) as the chief of staff for the Oklahoma Office of Homeland Security. Prior to that, she served as deputy director for the Oklahoma Sheriffs Association and as an attorney for the Oklahoma Truth in Sentencing Policy Advisory Commission. She has a law degree from the University of Oklahoma College of Law.
Houston has extensive experience in state agency operational management, legislative process and budgeting. She has overseen and directed administrative operations of $30 million in the attorney general’s office and she oversaw and managed more than $170 million in federal programming and funds while chief of staff at the Office of Homeland Security.
”Melissa knows how to run a state agency and how to ensure the public is getting the most out of the dollars it invests,” said Fallin. “I know she is excited to build on Mark Costello’s legacy of delivering a more efficient and effective state agency. Her expertise and experience in budget-management will be particularly important to the Labor Department during what is sure to be a challenging fiscal year for the state.” Houston said she was honored to be chosen.
”Throughout my career in state government, I have learned a lot about the challenges we face and the solutions that will help us overcome those obstacles,” said Houston. “More importantly, I’ve developed a great pride for this state and its people, and I look forward to joining the very hardworking and qualified staff at the Department of Labor and to furthering its mission in this new role. It has been a privilege to work for Attorney General Scott Pruitt, but I am excited about this new opportunity to serve the people and the state of Oklahoma.”
Current law allows that Houston serve the remainder of Costello’s term. Voters will elect a new labor commissioner in November 2018 (to begin serving in January 2019), although both Costello and some legislators have voiced support for making the position appointed rather than elected. Houston said she is not going to seek election to the labor commissioner post in 2018.
In the wake of Costello’s murder, his widow, Cathy Costello, had asked to be considered for the role of labor commissioner. Fallin said she took that request seriously.
“Cathy is a wonderful woman and I am heartbroken for her loss,” said Fallin. “I wish Cathy the best and I hope she continues to be an important state advocate for mental health issues.”
U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe also released a statement this week congratulating Houston for being nominated by Gov. Mary Fallin to be the state’s labor commissioner.
“My sincere congratulations go to Melissa on her appointment to become Oklahoma’s Labor Commissioner. Melissa follows in a strong family tradition of public service, to include her mother who currently serves as the city planner in Altus and her grandfather “Burley” Burleson, who I had the privilege of working with when he was a leader in the Altus community and base commander. I have supported Melissa throughout her career and worked with her during her service in the state government with the Oklahoma Department of Homeland Security and in her most recent position as chief of staff to the Attorney General. I greatly valued the late Mark Costello’s conservative contributions as commissioner of labor, and I am confident Melissa will ensure Oklahoma’s values continue to be well represented. Melissa’s appointment is a great continuation of a strong working relationship with the Labor Department and her appointment stands to only benefit and advance the state.”
Houston will begin her new role by Dec. 1.
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