Oklahoma legislators acted unlawfully when they tried to divert nearly $7.9 million away from a scholarship fund in the budget bill signed by Gov. Mary Fallin, state Attorney General Scott Pruitt said in an opinion issued Thursday.
The effect of the opinion is that this money will need to go to the scholarship fund and a like amount will have to be cut from some other part of the budget. It’s not clear where this cut will be made.
However, one option under discussion is to make the cut in the higher education budget and then restore the money to higher education in the form of a supplemental appropriation next legislative session, said John Estus, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Enterprise Services.
“Under no circumstance would any scholarship not be available because of this,” Estus said. “No scholarships are at risk.”
The state Board of Equalization meets June 26 to certify the budget. The governor’s office is meeting with top legislators to discuss legal and fiscal options ahead of that meeting, said Alex Weintz, a spokesman for Fallin.
Democratic Minority Leader Scott Inman asked for the opinion from the attorney general’s office, which was already looking into the issue after the State Regents for Higher Education questioned the situation.
The scholarships, called Oklahoma’s Promise or the Oklahoma Higher Learning Access Program, provide free tuition to Oklahoma students whose family income is $50,000 or less and who maintain good grades.
“In effect, the Legislature has attempted to siphon $7,894,737 away from Oklahoma’s Promise so that it can be spent elsewhere,” Pruitt said in the opinion. “You ask whether the Legislature’s attempt to do so is lawful. We conclude it is not.”
Fallin has said the intent of the budget bill was never to reduce the availability of scholarships, but to utilize existing reserve money in the scholarship fund to make up for the reduction in state appropriations.
However, Pruitt found that the program, established in 1992, has its own dedicated funding mechanism and the Legislature cannot tamper with this.
Inman praised the ruling.
“The House Democratic caucus is encouraged but not surprised that the attorney general agreed with us in that the Legislature’s actions to rob $8 million out of the Oklahoma Promise scholarship program for our college students, our middle class and poor college students, to rob $8 million out of their college fund, was not only immoral but it’s actually illegal,” he said.
The Board of Equalization certifies how much total money the Legislature has available to appropriate.
Under the way the scholarship fund was set up, the board subtracts from this total the money necessary to operate the scholarship program. In other words, state revenue is supposed to be set aside for the program and not be available for lawmakers to spend elsewhere.
A section of the budget measure, Senate Bill 2127, orders the board to increase the total amount of money available for lawmakers to appropriate by nearly $7.9 million and decrease the estimated amount to operate the scholarship program by a like amount.
Pruitt found the Legislature lacks the authority to tell the board to do these things.
How many students?
The total cost of the program for the next fiscal year is an estimated $61 million.
This will fund scholarships for 18,300 eligible students.