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Stashes of cash are tucked away in Oklahoma state agency accounts

While Oklahoma lawmakers have been wringing the budget to scrape together money for a small income tax cut, millions of dollars in cash has been accumulating in some of the obscure corners of about 2,700 state agency accounts.
by Randy Ellis Published: May 6, 2013

While state lawmakers have been wringing the budget to scrape together money for a small income tax cut, millions of dollars in cash has been accumulating in some of the obscure corners of about 2,700 state agency accounts, records reveal.

Some of the stashed cash is being squirreled away for emergencies. Some is being held for long-term projects. Other accounts have been tied up in legislative squabbles, or abandoned and all but forgotten.

Money stashed in agency accounts became an issue for the state Department of Corrections recently when it was discovered the agency had about $22 million held in three revolving funds. The department was asking for a $6.4 million supplemental appropriation at the time — a request that since has been withdrawn.

But the Corrections Department is far from the only agency with stockpiled cash.

There are many, many others.

“We do have concerns about that,” state Auditor Gary Jones said.

In the legislative appropriation process, there can be a tendency to start by assigning an agency the same amount it got the previous year and then allocating more money if the agency can show justification, he said.

But someone needs to determine how much each agency has “rat-holed” away and also take that into consideration, he said.

Some lawmakers periodically have attempted to do that — especially during lean years — but it is a mammoth task since the state has about 220 major agencies, boards and commissions (not to mention the minor ones) and about 2,700 agency accounts.

The Oklahoman recently questioned agency officials about several of those accounts. Every account seemed to have its own story behind it. Here are just a few of those stories.

Caught in turf war

The Oklahoma Department of Public Safety maintained its Troop K highway patrol headquarters in Pawnee for many years — until it became so dilapidated that agency officials decided to abandon it and set up operations in leased space in Perry.

The state Legislature responded in 2007 by voting to appropriate $1.2 million for construction of a new headquarters, said Commissioner Michael Thompson.

The money has been languishing in its own bank account ever since.

Public safety officials said the problem was that a state senator and state representative couldn't agree on where the headquarters should be built. While the original bill called for it to be built in Perry, Gov. Brad Henry line-item vetoed the specific location to give lawmakers time to work out an agreement. They never did.

Former state Sen. Joe Sweeden acknowledges he was the lawmaker who was holding out for Pawnee.

“Pawnee was in my district at that time, and Perry wasn't,” Sweeden said. “I had everybody in my district wanting it to remain there.”

Former state Rep. Rex Duncan was equally adamant the headquarters should be in Perry.

Duncan said both Perry and Pawnee were in his House district, but many troopers wanted the headquarters in Perry so it would be along the Interstate 35 corridor.

“It did digress into a turf war,” Duncan recalls.

A resolution is in sight, however. Sweeden was forced to leave office in 2010 because of term limits, and Duncan chose to leave his House position that same year to successfully run for Osage County district attorney.

The new Troop K headquarters now will be built — in Perry.

Construction is expected to begin within 60 days, officials said.

Thompson said $1.2 million would have paid for the new headquarters in 2008, but now his agency will have to come up with an additional $300,000 from somewhere else in its budget to pay for a building that is expected to cost closer to $1.5 million.

“We'll take it out of our hide,” he said.

Forfeiture funds

Ask Thompson about the Department of Public Safety's greatest needs, and he immediately begins talking about the need for more state troopers.

The agency went three years without a patrol school during the recession years, and its trooper ranks dropped by about 80 or 85, he said. The school has been reinstated, but it will take years to rebuild the staff, he said.

Outsiders might wonder why the agency doesn't use forfeiture funds to speed up the process. The agency carried over more than $6.4 million in federal asset forfeiture funds and more than $4.2 million in state asset forfeiture at the end of last June.

However, the state is prohibited from using federal forfeiture funds for that purpose, and it would be unwise to use state forfeiture funds that way, Thompson said.

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by Randy Ellis
Investigative Reporter
For the past 30 years, staff writer Randy Ellis has exposed public corruption and government mismanagement in news articles. Ellis has investigated problems in Oklahoma's higher education institutions and wrote stories that ultimately led to two...
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