The Oklahoma Supreme Court has declared unconstitutional a $25 million bond issue for a dam on the Arkansas River. That may disappoint Tulsa boosters, but it's a tacit victory for truth in advertising in government.
The Legislature originally authorized the bond in 2009 to match a $50 million federal grant to build low-water dams along the Arkansas River. The federal cash never came through, so Tulsa officials sought to use the money to raise the Zink Dam so a city park could be developed. During a Nov. 8 hearing, high court justices appeared concerned that the bond's purpose had changed. Their 9-0 ruling didn't specifically address the apparent bait-and-switch tactic, but it will no doubt discourage similar maneuvers in the future.
Critics contend the dam project should be financed locally, similar to Oklahoma City's MAPS initiatives. Justice Yvonne Kauger even said the Tulsa project sounded like “Bricktown on the Arkansas River” and the court decision declared “the bonds appear to be nothing more than a gift to the city of Tulsa and surrounding communities from the state.”
Without the court's action, the Zink Dam and MAPS would have shared an important trait: Oklahoma City natives would have substantially paid for both through their taxes. Tulsans and other non-Oklahoma City residents didn't fund MAPS unless they chose to shop here. The court's ruling sends the message that Tulsans must be responsible for Tulsa. When projects are worthwhile, we hope Tulsa follows Oklahoma City's lead in the future.
More importantly, opposition to debt of any kind has made it nearly impossible to get legislative approval of bonds. If lawmakers must worry that money will be diverted to new uses after approval, future bond projects of all kinds will get even less support.
The court's ruling effectively removes that objection and makes financing true state needs a little bit easier.