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.
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