THE Legislature has made strides in public transparency, but lawmakers continue to engage in budget practices that shield spending decisions from public scrutiny. A $2 million appropriation for a youth livestock show whose chairman is also a major political donor is just the latest case suggesting lawmakers may be playing fast and loose with taxpayer dollars.
The stock show money was part of the state Department of Agriculture budget in a general appropriations bill considered on the next-to-last day of the legislative session. House members initially opposed the bill but then passed it upon reconsideration. Several Republicans changed their vote to allow final passage.
Because the budget bill was brought so late, there was no time to correct problems due to logistical issues. It's hard not to suspect that this was by design.
Lawmakers voting to kill the bill would have effectively voted to hold a special session. Addressing a $2 million appropriation problem would have required spending $100,000 more on an extra week of session. That created public relations pressure to pass the budget regardless of any legal or ethical concerns.
The $2 million reportedly came from a fund in the secretary of state's office. This raises red flags since fees are supposed to pay for services provided. Last time we checked, the secretary of state doesn't oversee livestock shows. The agency isn't supposed to be a slush fund.
Furthermore, the budget legislation didn't specify that the $2 million would go to the livestock show. It's “pass through” money, a practice long criticized by Republicans before they won control of the Legislature — and with cause. Former state Sen. Gene Stipe, D-McAlester, was indicted in 2007 for allegedly bribing three state House lawmakers to steer state funds to a dog food plant he secretly owned.
Stipe may no longer be a legislator, but his spirit apparently lives on in Oklahoma's budget process. In an interview with the Tulsa World, House Appropriations and Budget Chairman Earl Sears, R-Bartlesville, was vague about who sought money for the livestock show. That seems odd since Sears was one of only a handful of people who actually wrote the budget. The others involved included Gov. Mary Fallin, House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, and Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa.
Those budget meetings are held in secret; few records are made public. Typically, everyone involved conveniently has amnesia when an appropriation decision becomes controversial or legally questionable.
At the same time, the Department of Corrections has been ordered to pay an extra $2 million to private prisons and halfway houses without an extra $2 million appropriation. Apparently, that money will have to come from a DOC revolving fund. We don't doubt the youth livestock show serves a positive purpose or oppose requiring the DOC to use cash from a revolving fund. But decisions regarding public expenditures should be made in public, not in clandestine meetings.
The state budget shouldn't be rolled out in the final week of a legislative session on a take-it-or-leave-it basis that can facilitate potentially illegal activity.
U.S. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi famously said Congress had to pass Obamacare to find out what was in it. Sadly, Oklahoma lawmakers seem to be taking the same approach to our state budget.