A proposed Oklahoma $25 million bond issue to pay for repairs to a dam owned by the city of Tulsa is unconstitutional because it would be a gift to the city, a state senator argued Thursday before all nine justices of the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
Attorneys supporting the project countered that the project serves a public purpose for the state, which allows legislators to authorize bond issues and appropriate money to make the debt payments.
Justices listened intently, with most of them asking questions during the hourlong hearing. They will make a ruling later.
Sen. Patrick Anderson, R-Enid, filed a lawsuit earlier this year to stop the bond issue.
Lawmakers authorized the bond issue in 2009, with the understanding the money would be matched with a $50 million federal grant to build a series of low-water dams along the Arkansas River.
Federal funds never were approved and the project stalled. In January, plans were announced to use the $25 million bond issue to raise the level of Zink Dam in Tulsa by 3 feet so that a city park can be developed for residential purposes.
Anderson said the new use is not what the Legislature originally intended.
The state constitution forbids using state money for a purpose other than that intended by the Legislature, he said. It also prohibits the state from making gifts and forbids creating a debt without a vote of the people.
Change in purpose?
Assistant Attorney General David Kinney, representing the Oklahoma Capitol Improvement Authority, which would issue the bonds, said the project would serve a valid public purpose. He compared it to being similar to bonds being issued to pay for the state attorney general's building and the state judicial building.
Chief Justice Steven Taylor asked questions indicating he had a difficult time agreeing that the Tulsa project has a state function similar to housing state agencies.
Kinney said the project addresses safety and tourism issues as well as sparking economic development in the area.
Taylor said he also is concerned that the purpose for the bond issue has changed.
“It is not the same project,” he said.
If the bond issue is approved, the agency formerly known as the Central Services Department would oversee the work, Kinney said. Lawmakers would appropriate the money to the agency, which would make the bond debt service payments.
Justice Noma Gurich asked questions on how the agency, which has been absorbed by another agency and no longer exists, could receive the money and make the payments.
Justice Yvonne Kauger said she is concerned the project is limited to benefit Tulsa.
Gary Bush, an attorney representing the Tulsa River Parks Authority, said the cost of the total park project is about $160 million. Tulsa doesn't have all the money yet to pay for it, he said.
Anderson said the Oklahoma Council of Bond Oversight, which approved the original bond issue, asked this year that the Legislature again consider the proposal before bonds are sold because of changes made to the project. He said the council eventually reversed itself and recommended approval.
The Oklahoma Capitol Improvement Authority, which handles bond issues for the state, asked the Supreme Court earlier this year to review the plan before seeking to sell bonds.