Rep. Jason Murphey
Special to The Sun
When a new legislator, I worked to learn some of the more hidden and less-than-transparent aspects in the way Oklahoma politicians spent our taxpayer dollars. This wasn’t easy as even some legislators are left in the dark regarding the mechanics of how the legislative budget process is abused to the benefit of the most powerful of politicians.
As I researched the issue, I turned to one of my contacts from my days as a Guthrie City Councilman. I had represented Guthrie as a member of the Association of Central Oklahoma Governments board and in that capacity I worked with Zach Taylor who had served as the director of ACOG for many years.
Over the years, Oklahoma legislators had used groups like ACOG to filter earmarked money from the state treasury, through the budget and a pass-through entity to recipients of the legislators’ choosing. The Oklahoma Constitution prevents the Legislature from awarding money to a specific company thus creating the need for laundering the money through a third-party government entity like ACOG. This understandably put public servants like Taylor in a bad position as they had to deal with the attempts of politicians to use their entity as a pass-through vehicle in order to get around the Constitution.
Interestingly, Taylor described how his agency would receive inquiries from politicians who wanted to earmark money to their own pet causes. Those naive lawmakers apparently had failed to figure out who the powerful politicians were who controlled the earmarking process and how the process worked. Taylor would observe that funding for those causes may later appear as pass-throughs. The naive lawmakers had seemingly figured out how to get an earmark and graduated into connected politicians who were capable of capturing, directing and laundering their own share of the taxpayer’s hard earned money. I will always appreciate Taylor for incurring the personal risk to honestly respond to my questions and explain to me how it “really” worked. Ever since, I have been an outspoken critic of earmarks and last year I voted against the budget after it became clear that it contained a $2 million earmark for a private entity.
Here is the exciting news.
This year’s budget appears to be a complete contrast to last year. I cannot find proof of any new earmarks. In fact, I believe old legacy earmarks are continuing to be converted to criteria-based grant processes where the financial award should be based on criteria instead of politics.
Considering state government had a lot of new money to spend this year, it is a most positive testimony to legislative appropriations officials and the governor that this inappropriate practice may be nearing an end. These individuals no doubt came under pressure from those who would have enjoyed raiding the state treasury but all indications seem to show they held firm.
Here is more good news. These same appropriations officials will be responsible for next year’s budget. If the state can go multiple years without new earmarks, it will establish a lasting precedent against earmarks that should prove hard for future generations of Oklahoma lawmakers to break.
REP. JASON MURPHEY, R-Guthrie, represents House District 31, which encompasses all of Logan County and a portion of northern Edmond. He may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Facebook at facebook.com/JasonMurphey and Twitter.com/JWMurphey.