The vice chairman of the Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission has accused state lawmakers of illegally taking $3 million from the agency’s revolving fund to help balance the state budget.
“I feel the Legislature has acted illegally in the taking of those funds,” commission Vice Chairman Tom Stephenson said in a letter mailed this week to legislative leaders.
“This removal of funds from the account of the Oklahoma Aeronautics (Commission) without approval leaves the commission in a position of soon not being able to meet its obligations,” said Stephenson, an Oklahoma City attorney.
State Sen. Clark Jolley, chairman of Senate Appropriations Committee, strongly disputed Stephenson’s claim.
“We’re very confident that what we did was surely within our constitutional authority,” said Jolley, R-Edmond, who is also an attorney.
Jolley also questioned whether taking the $3 million will put the agency in a financial bind.
“They are sitting on, according to their numbers, approximately $10 million for fiscal year 2015, and in FY 2014 they spent $5.5 million,” Jolley said. “Now, will this result in a delay in them finishing some projects? It could conceivably result in a delay if they were going to expend all of it this year.”
That, however, would seem unlikely given the agency’s recent spending history, he said.
Victor Bird, director of the Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission, said he has requested an informal state attorney general’s opinion on the legality of the Legislature’s taking of the funds, but has not yet received a response.
Stephenson made it clear in the letter that the opinions he was expressing were his own and not the position of the Aeronautics Commission as a whole.
Money in the revolving fund comes solely from aircraft owners and pilots through the collection of an excise tax on aircraft sales and fees designated by state law as going to the commission, Stephenson said.
He contends the law requires those funds to be used for the benefit of Oklahoma’s airports and aeronautics.
Jolley said the statutes cited by Stephenson in his letter deal with fuel taxes and airport-generated fees that can’t be spent on programs that are not related to aeronautics and airports without jeopardizing federal assistance. However, Jolley said, the Legislature only transferred funds generated by an excise tax on the sale of aircraft and he contends those funds are not subject to the limitation.
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