| January 19, 2011
Special projects? What special projects?
In a commentary which appeared last week in The City Sentinel, (CapitolBeatOK reported on it here), state Sen. Andrew Rice (D-Oklahoma City) made a most intriguing statement: “The Oklahoma constitution does not allow the budget to carry debt, nor can individual legislators dole out money for special projects or frivolous museums.”
Well, okay. Why then do these things happen?
According to the Institute for Truth in Accounting, Oklahoma has $3 billion with which to pay $19.4 billion in debt. “If this problem is left unaddressed,” said former state treasurer Scott Meacham, “the system will eventually require a cash infusion of staggering proportions to meet current payment obligations. This could result in the need for the state to raise taxes or dramatically reduce funding to vital state programs. The ultimate impact of continued inaction will be borne by citizens of the state of Oklahoma.”
And what about special projects? Think back to FY-2004, considered a “tough” budget year. Legislators vow that “special project” money is going to be minimal and all Councils of Government (COGs) will get the same amount. The legislature adjourns and, suddenly that summer, COGs start transferring their money to a few COGs in a certain area of the state. When others ask why, they are essentially told by the COGS that, “um, the fiscal staff person from the House of Representatives instructed us that this legislator or that legislator said this money was to be sent here.”
Is Senator Rice aware of this? Can he tell us what would prevent it from happening again?
And consider FY-2005, when special project money increases from about $4.6 million to $11.5 million as several termed-out legislators leave office. The House of Representatives has an Excel spreadsheet that shows which members got how much “walking around money” for that year.
Consider FY-2006, FY-2007, and FY-2008, when the Oklahoma Historical Society and the Department of Agriculture are given directions by individual legislators over the summer regarding what museums or other projects should get funding.
Consider that, over the last decade, individual legislators have determined where appropriated funds should go from the Rural Fire 80/20 Grant Program. And consider those funds that were directed by individual legislators from the Department of Commerce and the Department of Agriculture to the Rural Development Foundation. That $7.5 million kickback scheme got one Oklahoma legislator sent to federal prison, along with a state auditor and inspector, and another state legislator federally indicted.
I urge you to ask the directors and staff at these agencies if any of this took place. If they are not afraid, they can tell you even greater stories of irresponsibility. Or even better, ask some of these agencies if they received letters or phone calls from individual legislators over the last decade, “suggesting” to them where appropriated funds should be spent. You might even find such a letter for FY-2011. Which would doubtless come as quite a shock to Sen. Rice.