A measure that authorizes a statewide virtual charter school and $30 million for textbooks for public schools is legal because both fall under the same subject of education, a state attorney said Tuesday.
Assistant Attorney General Nancy Zerr said the measure, Senate Bill 1816, does not violate the one-subject rule in the state constitution.
“This is an education bill,” she said. “The textbooks directly relate to public education of children and the charter school provision relates to education.
“It clearly falls under the one subject — education,” Zerr said. “The provisions are not misleading. The language is clear. It is not ambiguous.”
But Oklahoma City attorney Jerry Fent, who is challenging the legislation, said the measure should be struck down because it violates a constitutional prohibition on placing multiple subjects into a single bill.
Fent said the high court, if it agrees with his argument, shouldn't decide which legislative matter should remain in effect.
“If they attempt to make part of it unconstitutional and the other part legal, then the court is legislating,” he said. “The court is the judicial branch.”
“If the court determines that the special appropriation of this bill found in Section 20 shouldn't be in this bill … then Section 20 could be severed and the balance of the bill would still make sense,” she said.
Fent said SB 1816 also is unconstitutional because the state constitution requires that general appropriation bills should consist of nothing but allocating money for the state and that “all other appropriations shall be made by separate bills, each embracing one subject.”
Fent and Zerr used the same section of the constitution to argue their cases before Supreme Court referee Greg Albert, who will file a report with the court.
Zerr said SB 1816 was a special appropriation to the state Education Department. She said Article 5, Section 56 of the state constitution states the general appropriation bill shall consist of nothing but appropriations for state government.
But Fent called foul because Zerr didn't include the last sentence of the section, which states, “All other appropriations shall be made by separate bills, each embracing but one subject.”
“That borders upon some kind of a fraud or misrepresentation of what the law is,” Fent said. “When they flagrantly omit a part of the constitution in order to win their case is what I'm concerned with.”
The Supreme Court in recent years has struck down several laws because they contained multiple subjects, a practice known as “logrolling.”
Fent said it is not too late to stop the measure because the state constitution requires money be allocated to state departments on a monthly basis. The measure, which took effect July 1, remains active through June 30, the end of this fiscal year.
During this year's session, an amendment was added to SB 1816 in the final hours of the session. The amendment requires the Education Department to spend $30 million on textbooks for public school districts.
Lawmakers had to scramble find a way to appropriate money to pay for textbooks for public schools.
The $6.8 billion state budget that legislators approved the final week of the session was said to contain $33 million for textbooks for public schools, but several legislators were disappointed to hear that state schools Superintendent Janet Barresi told Board of Education members on the second-to-last day of the session that she planned to use $11.5 million of the $33 million allocated for textbooks for other purposes.
The state House on the last day of the session passed SB 1816, which included language requiring the Education Department, which received a $2.3 billion allocation from legislators, to spend $30 million on textbooks for public school districts. Some members were uneasy voting for the measure because the bill also authorized a statewide virtual charter school, a measure that barely passed earlier when it received the minimum 51 votes needed for passage. With the textbook funding amendment, the bill passed 84-10.