Lawsuit could upend budget process (Capitol Updates)

Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1991. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol. You can sign up on his website to receive the Capitol Updates newsletter by email.

Photo by blogdnd / CC BY 2.0
Photo by blogdnd / CC BY 2.0

Although the lengthened legislative week included Friday, legislators considered few bills in committee or on the floor last week.  The most notable were passage in the Joint Committee on Appropriations and Budget of bills providing for a $25 million bond issue each for the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum (AICCM) in Oklahoma City and the OKPOP museum in Tulsa.  The AICCM bill also included provisions transferring operation of the museum and ultimately ownership when the bonds are fully paid to Oklahoma City.  Apparently both projects were sliced and diced to a bare bones budget.  Personally, I’m glad to see them happen, and I’m glad to see a few pennies of my tax dollars go to make them happen.  The American Indian Cultural Center measure has been sent to Governor Fallin, while OKPOP failed on the House floor, though it could be brought up for reconsideration [Update: The House has reconsidered and approved funding for OKPOP].

An interesting sidelight to legislative action is a lawsuit filed this week by Oklahoma City attorney Jerry Fent and others challenging how the legislature the past few years has used a general appropriation bill to pass the state budget.  Timing of the lawsuit seems to be calculated to get legislators’ maximum attention.  The reason for using a general appropriation bill (which appropriates money to multiple agencies in a single bill) is that it only takes a simple majority of votes in each house to pass and go into effect immediately.  That’s because it’s necessary to have the following year appropriations in place before the beginning of the fiscal year on July 1.  Separate appropriation bills require a two-thirds vote to invoke the emergency clause.  Otherwise they won’t go into effect until 90 days after the legislature adjourns which is past July 1.

Article 5 § 56 of the Constitution provides that “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.”  The Fent lawsuit complains that, in moving money around to make ends meet in the same bill, legislators have included in the appropriations measure the transfer of funds from one account to another.  He says this violates the limitation that the general appropriation bill “shall embrace nothing but appropriations.” 

If the Fent lawsuit is successful it could cause a profound change on the way the state budget has been passed lately.  If appropriations bills for each agency are passed individually, requiring a two-thirds vote to pass, it causes more people to have a say in the process.  When the numbers between the two parties were more even it became a custom to use the general appropriation bill so the majority would not have to rely on votes from the minority party-and thus give them input into the budget.  This has been more or less true whether Democrats or Republicans were in the majority.  Sometimes even when one party has more than two-thirds it’s hard to get the two-thirds vote on every agency appropriation.  Of course it can be, has been and is done with the necessary give and take of the legislative process.


Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.