| November 15, 2012

Plan B to improve the Zink dam in Tulsa isn't the project the legislature approved

This past week, the Oklahoma Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case that demonstrates why citizens rightly suspect that their elected representatives have lost their grip on the government they supposedly control in the name of the people.

In 2009, the Oklahoma legislature approved a bond issue to fund a major set of improvements in the area surrounding the Zink dam in Tulsa. In addition to improvements on the existing dam, a series of dams were to be constructed along the Arkansas River. Federal money was to supply a large portion of the necessary funding for the development. As, however, so often happens, the federal funding did not come thorough. But the powers that be could not let a bond approval go to waste.

Instead of the project approved by the legislature, Tulsa leaders, with behind the scenes assistance, it appears, from high state officials, convinced, with some effort, the public authority authorized to issue the bonds to fund a different, more modest project. It turns out that Tulsa leaders have a Plan B (or, actually, Plan C, as city voters just refused to fund the city's end of the project). First, using state money, the dam will be remodeled in order to raise the level of the Zink lake. Then, counting on the state supplying the money for the dam improvements, a private foundation will develop the surrounding park land.

It sounds like a very nice project—except that it isn't the one the legislature approved. Keep in mind that this bond issue, even as originally designed, employed the usual tricks lawmakers use to get around constitutional restrictions on issuing debt. The borrowed money goes from the authority to a state agency who then funds the improvements for the city while pretending to pay rent to the state authority because it's supposed to be illegal for the state to fund city projects directly. The legislature then pretends that it isn't actually obligated to pay the cost for servicing the bonds (which would be illegal), even though everyone knows that if the legislature reneges on the deal, the state's credit rating will crater.

Now, one can make a reasonable argument that we must tolerate these machinations because it is impossible to run a modern government under the archaic and ill-designed finance provisions of our constitution. Our Supreme Court, by regularly approving these schemes, has said so much. But is it too much to ask that, before we turn a blind eye to these legal evasions, we do it only in a case we can be certain the people's representatives debated the merits of the actual project and decided that it sufficiently benefited the state as a whole to justify the expense? The Court should take this opportunity to teach our state's officials that the approval of state spending or borrowing by the people's representatives isn't a formality—it's the essence of popular government.

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