| July 9, 2012

Pork in the agriculture budget? (Part One)

At an OCPA speech in Tulsa and in other venues, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has said: "Never take a dollar from a free citizen through the coercion of taxation without a very legitimate purpose. We have a solemn duty to spend that dollar as carefully as possible, because when we took it we diminished that person's freedom."

Even though Oklahoma government spending was already at an all-time high, our political leaders who crafted the FY-2013 budget decided to spend even more money. But is there "a very legitimate purpose" behind all this spending? Is all this money — more than $500 per second — being spent "as carefully as possible"?

A comparison of the Department of Agriculture's budget to the prior year reveals an increase of $2 million for FY-2013. The bill that increased the Department of Agriculture's budget specifically states that all funds appropriated to the agency are to be used "as may be necessary to perform the duties imposed upon the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food, and Forestry by law."

I contacted the Department of Agriculture to ask about the purpose of this $2 million, and they said they were not aware of the exact purpose of the funds, but that they are to be given to a non-governmental entity. In private conversations, it has been said that the funds are for "[a non-governmental entity] that is having financial trouble."

Given the constitutional provisions prohibiting gifts by the state, prohibitions against the expenditure of funds unless authorized by law, and prohibitions against individual lawmakers directing the expense of agency funds, I asked the Oklahoma Office of State Finance (OSF), the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and the Oklahoma Senate for a response regarding the purpose of the funds. Here was my request:

I am reviewing the various appropriation increases to agencies over FY-2012 amounts. It appears that the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture has received an appropriation increase of $2 million. I have not been able to find information regarding the increase in the joint press release on the budget agreement, which contained many of the descriptions and details regarding other increases. What has been communicated is that the increase is for the [non-governmental entity]. Could you please point me to what bill or law that was passed/or has been enacted (if none of these please provide the communication including such direction) directing the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture to distribute these funds to the [non-governmental entity]? Also, could you please provide a detail for how the funds are to be used?

I received the following responses. From the House:

There is no legislation or statute specific to [non-governmental entity] funding for FY 13 because the Department of Agriculture's FY 13 appropriation was not line-itemed in the GA bill or in any budget limit bills. However, Department of Agriculture should be able to get you details on [non-governmental entity] program operations, expenditures, etc. for FY 13 since they run the program.

From the Senate:

There was not a bill directing the expenditure of any funds on the [non-governmental entity] or any other line items at the Department of Agriculture. [Senate staff] not aware of any communications from the Senate to the Department of Agriculture concerning that matter. You will need to follow up with the Governor's Office or the Office of State Finance.

From OSF:

...Yes, the Department Of Agriculture's FY-2013 appropriation was increased by $2 million to provide funding for the operation of the [non-governmental entity]. This was not a program enacted in statute. Nor, was the increase broken out specifically into a line item appropriation...

Obviously, I wasn't satisfied with this bureaucratic runaround, so I followed up with the Department of Agriculture, the House, and OSF:

Can a state agency take public funds designated/appropriated for a specific purpose ('the duties imposed upon the department by law") and unilaterally give it to a private entity (non-government entity) without an enacted law directing such an action? How does the Department of Agriculture know they are "supposed" to give the funds to the [non-governmental entity]?

I have received no response.

Needless to say, the responses (or lack thereof) are disturbing. Given the "solemn duty" of lawmakers, taxpayers should be very concerned that no one seems to quite know the exact purpose of the funds, or how exactly the funds will be used. Taxpayers will also find it disturbing that there is a plan to spend the funds in a direct violation of the bill increasing funds to the agency, a direct violation of the Oklahoma constitution, and a direct violation of an established attorney general's opinion regarding the subject.

U.S. Senator Tom Coburn has been a leader in the fight against earmarks, and in his important new book The Debt Bomb he revealed one of Congress’s dirty little secrets: “phonemarking”—“a tactic members use to avoid a paper trail and transparency rules by calling agency heads to cajole them to fund certain grants or risk budget cuts to their agency.”

Is that what's going on here?

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