The Journal Record
July 31, 2018
OKLAHOMA CITY – The Oklahoma Supreme Court could soon decide what role the judicial branch plays in drafting the state’s budget.
The Oklahoma Ethics Commission has sued the governor, the state’s top legislative officials, and the departments that administer state finance, arguing that its appropriation for the year is insufficient to cover its operations. State statutes established most agencies, which gives lawmakers significant power over them. But voters passed a state question in 1990 to create a constitutional amendment that established the Ethics Commission in an effort to ensure the agency’s independence. That provision requires the Legislature to secure funding sufficient to enable it to perform its duties.
Ann Hadrava, a referee for the court, heard the case on Tuesday. She will compile a report on the hearing and deliver it to the justices. They’ll meet to deliberate on whether they have enough information to reach a decision. If that answer is no, they can request more briefs or schedule an oral argument.
Litigants argued that the Legislature effectively failed to fund the commission because instead of using money in the general revenue fund, which is where lawmakers get most of the money they appropriate, they simply raided the agency’s own revolving fund. The budget removed the $710,351 in accrued fees from that fund and appropriated the money to the agency for operations.
The lawsuit claimed that total amount is insufficient by more than $350,000 to carry out existing services and that the agency actually needs significantly more staff members to handle the caseload that 2018’s elections will spur. The commission needs at least 17 more employees, litigants said, and a total budget of about $2.5 million. The Legislature appropriated $710,351 to the agency.
Their argument hinges on whether the Legislature failed to carry out its constitutional duty, and because that is a constitutional issue, the commission is trying to get the lawsuit before the Oklahoma Supreme Court. The commission also argues that it has no choice but to take the matter to the Supreme Court. The district court process would take so long the fiscal year would end before the lawsuit reached its conclusion.
Hadrava asked Jan Preslar, the commission’s general counsel, how the state should define what’s sufficient for the ethics agency’s funding.
“I think the question for the court is ‘What does that mean, and who determines what that means?’” Hadrava said.
Preslar said the courts must get involved to settle these disputes between the Ethics Commission and the Legislature to ensure the two don’t become too intertwined.
“I believe that was the intent of the framers,” she said.
The defendants named in the lawsuit are Speaker of the House Charles McCall on behalf of his chamber, Senate President Pro Tempore Mike Schulz on behalf of his chamber, Office of Management and Enterprise Services Director Denise Northrup and her agency, and state Treasurer Ken Miller and his agency.
Robert McCampbell of GableGotwals represented McCall and the House. He raised several concerns about the specific budget demands, especially the growth in appropriations requests from year to year. He also said that budget priorities are inherently political, and his argument, like many of the defendants’, hinged on whether the court should be involved in an issue that is political.
“If the commission gets more, who gets less?” he said. “Those are political decisions.”
Cara Rodriguez, of Glenn Coffee & Associates, represented Schulz and the Senate. She made a similar argument but advised that this case will set a new precedent in the budget process in Oklahoma. She said it opens the door to so-called advocacy litigation, against which she warned.
“This case is much bigger than the Ethics Commission,” she said.
There is no required timeline on the court to decide whether justices will make a decision or require more information.