A proposed $25 million state bond issue to pay for repairs to a dam owned by the city of Tulsa is unconstitutional, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
The high court voted 9-0 to deny permission for the Oklahoma Capitol Improvement Authority to issue the bonds.
Supporters argued before the Supreme Court earlier this month that the bond issue would provide the state with economic benefits as well as help the state culturally and ecologically.
“In reality, the bonds appear to be nothing more than a gift to the city of Tulsa and surrounding communities from the state,” Justice Yvonne Kauger wrote.
“This type of gift is precisely what is prohibited by the Oklahoma Constitution.
“Accordingly, the proposed bonds are unconstitutional,” she wrote.
Kauger said the state's involvement in the project “exists only to lend its credit to and make a donation for the benefit of the municipality.”
Attorneys supporting the project argued earlier this month that the project serves a public purpose for the state, which would allow legislators to authorize bond issues and appropriate money to make the debt payments.
State Sen. Patrick Anderson, R-Enid, filed a lawsuit earlier this year to stop the bond issue.
“I appreciate the court's prompt attention to this matter, and I certainly agree with the court's conclusion that the issuance of these bonds would violate the constitution of the state of Oklahoma,” Anderson said Tuesday. “In the future, I would hope that policymakers will pay closer attention to the state constitution.”
Lawmakers authorized the bond issue in 2009, with the understanding the money would be matched with a $50 million federal grant to build a series of low-water dams along the Arkansas River.
Federal funds never were approved, and the project stalled. In January, plans were announced to use the $25 million bond issue to raise the level of Zink Dam in Tulsa by 3 feet so that a city park could be developed for residential purposes.
Anderson said the new use is not what the Legislature originally intended.
The state constitution forbids using state money for a purpose other than that intended by the Legislature, he said in his argument before the Supreme Court. It also prohibits the state from making gifts and forbids creating a debt without a vote of the people.
Assistant Attorney General David Kinney, representing the Oklahoma Capitol Improvement Authority, which would issue the bonds, argued the project would serve a valid public purpose. He said the project addressed safety and tourism issues as well as sparking economic development in the area.
Justices during the Nov. 8 hearing said they were concerned the purpose for the bond issue had changed. Kauger said then she was concerned the project was limited to benefit the Tulsa area.
Anderson said the Oklahoma Council of Bond Oversight, which approved the original bond issue, asked this year that the Legislature again consider the proposal before bonds are sold because of changes made to the project. He said the council eventually reversed itself and recommended approval.
The Oklahoma Capitol Improvement Authority, which handles bond issues for the state, asked the Supreme Court earlier this year to review the plan before seeking to sell bonds.