The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

November 8, 2012

State Supreme Court takes up constitutionality of Tulsa's Zink Lake Dam bonds

Staff and wire reports
Enid News and Eagle

OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma Supreme Court began Thursday to consider whether a proposed $25 million state bond issue for improvements at Tulsa’s Zink Lake Dam would be an unconstitutional gift to the city or serve a greater public purpose as part of a planned series of waterway improvements.

State Sen. Patrick Ander-son, R-Enid, challenged the constitutionality of the plan, telling justices the project should be blocked, in part, because its scope has changed.

“It’s like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole,” he said. “It’s not going to work.”

When the Legislature ap-proved the bond issue in 2009, the proposal included two other low-water dams along the Arkansas River and the federal government was to kick in $50 million, money that was never appropriated.

Legislators were told the project would create 9,450 jobs, Anderson has said, and have a $2.8 billion impact on the state’s economy. Since the federal funds were never appropriated, the project never moved forward.

“We can hope all we want, but that is not going to happen,” Anderson told justices.

Former bond oversight council Chairman Cliff Elliott told justices during oral arguments that allowing the dam funding to go forward would set a “dangerous precedent.”

The funding had earlier been blocked by the council, which sought an opinion from the state’s highest court on whether the bond issue would be constitutional.

The high court will rule later.

“I’m very hopeful the court will rule in my favor,” Anderson said.

He said he urged the court to reach a decision quickly.

The new legislative session will begin in February, Anderson said, and there would need to be time for a new proposal — if there is one — to be drawn up in time for lawmakers to consider it.

Attorneys for the state, Tulsa River Parks Authority and Tulsa Metro Chamber told justices the project serves a state public purpose and funding should be allowed to go forward.

Assistant Attorney General David Kinney argued the project is comparable to previous bond issues already found legal by the court.

Justice Yvonne Kauger said the project, which would improve the Arkansas River dam and raise the lake’s level by 3 feet, sounds like a local project.

“My problem is: Is this a valid state purpose, or is this a purpose for the city of Tulsa?” Kauger asked.

Kinney told Kauger that economic development is a state public purpose.

“I think you can make a strong argument that, yes, it has a strong benefit to the city of Tulsa, but it also has a strong benefit to the state of Oklahoma,” he said.

Anderson said he was happy with how the hearing went.

“I was very pleased,” he said. “I thought the court asked some very good questions.”

Kinney said the other work approved by the Legislature can be done when funding is available.

“This is not the complete project, but $25 million was never going to pay for the complete project,” Kinney told justices.

In challenging the constitutionality of the proposal earlier this year, Anderson said spending the money on Zink Lake Dam is not what the Legislature intended when it approved the bond issue. He said issuance of bonds would amount to an unconstitutional gift to the city of Tulsa, and would create debt for the state.

“The Oklahoma Constitution forbids using funds for a purpose other than that intended by the Legislature, it prohibits the state from making gifts and it forbids the creation of debt without a vote of the people,” Anderson said.

Associate Editor Kevin Hassler and The Associated Press contributed to this story.