The Edmond Sun

December 27, 2012

Incoming House speaker: 'All options' on table for funding ME's office

James Coburn
The Edmond Sun

EDMOND — The state Legislature is bound again to try settling a core function of public safety in 2013 as funding for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner begins another year looming on the political horizon.

Legislators have made budget cuts in recent years while protecting economic development in the state. This includes making tough decisions about infrastructure, said House Speaker-elect T.W. Shannon.

“I was talking to the D.A.’s council, and they were telling me, ‘Rep. Shannon, this ME’s Office has become such a problem that the first question we get when we’re on the stand trying a murder case from a defense attorney is, ‘Is your ME’s office an accredited medical examiner’s office?’’’

The ME’s office lost its accreditation with the National Association of Medical Examiners in 2009 and has fired two chief medical examiners in two years. The association issued a report noting the deficiencies result from an inadequate staff due to a lack of funding. Also, the agency’s equipment and facilities are obsolete, the association’s report stated.

“It’s been tough to even convict people who have committed murder,” Shannon said recently to the Edmond Area Chamber of Commerce. Infrastructure repairs have been overlooked at the state capital, Shannon said.

“So we’ve got to be committed to that type of infrastructure improvements, along with our veterans centers,” Shannon said. “We’ve got an (Indian) Cultural Center. We’ve got several I think the state can no longer afford to just ignore.”

Senate Bill 1337 in 2010 agreed to place the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in close proximity to the UCO Forensic Science Institute and the OSBI crime lab. Without funds for the move, the ME’s office has remained on the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center campus at 901 N. Stonewall in Oklahoma City.

The Legislature in May passed funding for the Office of Chief Medical Examiner as part of the general appropriations bill. The cost of constructing the office is not to exceed $42 million, said state Sen. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond. The budget provides $2.5 million for infrastructure improvements.

Oklahoma has one of the lowest debt amounts in the country, said Jolley, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Jolley has called for the Legislature to fund the Medical Examiner’s office with cash and/or bonds to fund a core function of public safety.

“However, since the Legislature has failed to do so, the next best option is to utilize the existing state law to allow UCO to build the building for the medical examiner and lease the building to the medical examiner,” Jolley said in November. “Regrettably, because of the failures of the Legislature, the state has to depend on UCO to build the building as the statutory last resort.”

Shannon said he doesn’t think the Legislature will create new taxes to fund the ME’s office. Bonding is still a consideration, he said.

“We’ve got priorities. We’ve got a Rainy Day Fund that is almost full. We’ve got $200 million that is anticipated going to the Rainy Day Fund,” Shannon said. “I think all options for funding should be on the table. It just takes political will to get it done.” | 341-2121