Oklahoma state medical examiner's office project hits another snag
A state panel approves a funding proposal for a new state medical examiner's building to be built on the University of Central Oklahoma campus in Edmond, but the matter is headed to the state Supreme Court after an objection to the funding program's constitutionality is raised.
A state panel approved a funding package Thursday that includes money to build a headquarters for the state medical examiner's office in Edmond, but it and 10 other college campus projects totaling $116 million are stalled until the state's highest court reviews whether the financing program is constitutional.
Jerry Fent, an Oklahoma City attorney who has filed several lawsuits contesting the legality of state bond issues, told members of the state Council of Bond Oversight that he objected to the building and equipping of the medical examiner's office being funded through a special bond program intended to pay for higher education projects.
“Your program is unconstitutional,” he said.
Jim Joseph, the state's bond adviser, said bonds to finance a project can't be sold if there is a risk of a legal challenge. He will ask the Oklahoma Finance Development Authority, which would issue the bonds to pay for the projects, to file a lawsuit with the Oklahoma Supreme Court to determine whether the master lease program's project complies with the state constitution and laws.
Equipping and constructing the medical examiner's building, to be built on the University of Central Oklahoma campus, is projected to cost $38.5 million.
State Sen. Patrick Anderson and Cliff Elliott, a former longtime chairman of the Council of Bond Oversight, both argued it was unconstitutional for the medical examiner's project to be included in the state regents' master lease real property program.
Elliott said the master lease program is being used to place a state building on a college campus to avoid legislative and gubernatorial review.
“This is not the intent of the master lease program as it was created,” he said.
Anderson, R-Enid, said legislators, who have the constitutional authority to appropriate funds, never were given the opportunity to vote on the project. Projects to be funded by the program are given to the governor, the speaker of the House and the president pro tem of the Senate within seven days of the legislative session's beginning; any projects that aren't rejected by a concurrent resolution of the Senate and House within 45 days are considered approved. Projects in the master lease program are able to get a lower interest rate than by going through individual bond issues.
Need for funding
Under the master lease real property program, each university pays for the projects through various funds or fees. Money for the medical examiner's building is to be provided by the medical examiner's office from funds appropriated by the Legislature. UCO officials said earlier that if the medical examiner's office doesn't get additional funding for the debt payments, the university wouldn't be able to afford the debt service payments either.
Anderson said the 30-year bond issue for the medical examiner's office will cost about $2.2 million a year.
“We have never brought this matter before the Legislature for consideration,” he said. “The only source of repayment is a direct appropriation from the Legislature. The Legislature has not appropriated those funds. This matter needs to go before the Legislature for its consideration. The project itself needs to go before the Legislature for its approval.”
Council members voted 4-0 to approve the master lease program. Anderson said he didn't object to the medical examiner's building, but how it was being funded.