Budget challenge asks, “What part of ‘nothing but appropriations’ do you not understand?”

Jerry Fent
Jerry Fent

Early in May, former State Representative Mike Reynolds, represented by Oklahoma City attorneys Jerry Fent and Ted Pool, filed a lawsuit against Governor Mary Fallin and other officeholders on behalf of the taxpayers of Oklahoma. The suit challenges how the state carries out one of its primary budget responsibilities – the writing of the annual General Appropriations (GA) bill that provides over $7 billion in annual funding to some 70 state agencies.The lawsuit called on the District Court to strike down the GA bills from the last three years. Its timing was also clearly intended to warn  lawmakers then developing the FY 2016 budget to change their ways or risk having this budget overturned – a warning that went largely unheeded.

The General Appropriations bill is an annual bill that funds the ongoing operations of state agencies for the next budget year. The state Constitution, under Art. 5, Sec. 56, states:

The general appropriation bill shall embrace nothing but appropriations for the expenses of the executive, legislative, and judicial departments of the State, and for interest on the public debt… All other appropriations shall be made by separate bills, each embracing but one subject.

In addition to allowing appropriations for multiple agencies in a single bill, the GA bill is unique in taking effect on July 1st without an emergency clause, which requires a 2/3rds vote of the Legislature. The GA bill is thus critical for having a budget in place that funds state government by the start of the new fiscal year on July 1st.

The lawsuit challenges longstanding practices of including various sections in the GA bill that do not conform to a strict reading of the constitutional language that the bill “shall embrace nothing but appropriations…” While most sections of a GA bill state: “There is hereby appropriated to the Department of X from money not otherwise appropriated from the Y Fund of the State Treasury…”, some do not. The lawsuit challenges various sections of the GA bills that transfer, rather than appropriate, funds; authorize agencies to expend certain funds rather than appropriate those funds; fail to specify the purpose for which funds are being transferred; and lack an effective date. In addition, a section of the 2013 GA bill that reappropriates and redesignates money previously appropriated to the House of Representatives was also challenged.  The brief repeatedly cites and highlights the constitutional language that the GA bill “shall embrace nothing but appropriations” and repeatedly asks the question: “What part of this phrase did you not understand?”

The challenged sections total between $590 million and $1.083 billion of each year’s appropriations. However, the suit argues that should any of these sections be found unconstitutional, then the whole GA bill would be unbalanced and hence unconstitutional.

The FY 2016 GA bill, HB 2242, passed on the final days of the 2015 session, addresses some of the practices challenged in the lawsuit. In particular, instead of transferring money to the Special Cash Funds, as was regularly done in the past, this year’s bill contains thirteen sections (Sections 169-181) that appropriate money to the Special Cash Fund from various funds “for availability of appropriations.” However, this year’s GA bill replicates several practices from previous years contested by the lawsuit:

  • It includes multiple sections that authorize the expenditure of various funds, rather than makes an appropriation;
  • It includes 15 sections that lack an effective date (Secs. 164-178), and three that have an effective date later than July 1st (Secs. 179-181);
  • It includes money specifically designated for FY 2015, not FY 2016 (Sec. 164);
  • It includes sections redesignating and reappropriating funds previously appropriated to the House of Representatives (Sec. 53) and to the Ethics Commission (Secs. 49 & 50).

In its defendants’ motion to dismiss the lawsuit, the Attorney General’s office cites previous Supreme Court rulings upholding language “transferring” and “allocating” funds as within the proper scope of an appropriations bill. Their motion also challenges Reynolds’ standing to file the lawsuit and his right to seek damages.

Should the Court ultimately rule that the contested GA bills indeed violated the constitution, it will then face the difficult question of what to do about it. The plaintiffs ask for damages and/or “the return of all unconstitutional and unlawful money” in the contested bills, but it’s hard to imagine the Court trying to undo three years of state appropriations that have already taken full effect.But given that this year’s GA bill replicates some of the practices challenged by the lawsuit, the budget that is funding state government could be thrown into serious turmoil if the plaintiffs prevail.


Former Executive Director David Blatt joined OK Policy in 2008 and served as its Executive Director from 2010 to 2019. He previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.

One thought on “Budget challenge asks, “What part of ‘nothing but appropriations’ do you not understand?”

  1. Most of my colleagues and I are ready to place this administration off the Oklahoma payroll when elections come up. Of course, their new gig as lobbyists already waiting for their dismissal. Good riddance to bad rubbish my mother always said.

    The preposterous scientist slandering and foraging for votes for the sake of the Koch brothers
    bologney has made this red state turn black with disgust.

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