The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

National and world

May 13, 2014

Oklahoma House gives final OK to prison funding

OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma House gave final approval Tuesday to a $13 million supplemental appropriation measure to help Oklahoma’s prison system pay its bills in spite of the concerns of some House members that the funding bill is unconstitutional.

The House voted 68-23 for the measure and sent it to Gov. Mary Fallin’s desk to be signed into law. House members then voted 81-8 for an emergency clause that will allow the measure to go into effect as soon as it is signed. The Senate passed the measure last week.

The House author, Rep. Scott Martin, R-Norman, says the measure appropriates $13 million to the Department of Corrections to help it pay is bills through the end of the fiscal year that ends June 30.

Martin, chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, said the agency is constitutionally required to pay its current bills before the end of the fiscal year. Martin said money for the supplemental appropriation will come from surplus general revenue funds from the previous year.

The measure also gives the director of the Department of Corrections more authority to tap an internal agency revolving account. Martin said the agency, whose budget this year totals $463 million, is facing a $27 million shortfall that the supplemental appropriation and money from the revolving fund will close.

The department will use the money to pay for private prison beds, a backup of inmates in county jails and inmate medical services.

Opponents of the bill said it’s likely to face a legal challenge.

Rep. Mike Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City, said he believes the measure is unconstitutional because general revenue surpluses must be used to pay off bonded indebtedness.

“That is the single constitutional purpose for which this money is allowed,” Reynolds said. “This is a court challenge waiting to happen.”

Rep. Richard Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City, said lawmakers were abdicating their responsibility to provide oversight of the agency by giving more authority to the director.

Morrissette also said the Department of Corrections is under-budgeted and that too much tax revenue is set aside for state inmates in private prisons.

“We’re not running this like a business,” Morrissette said. “The process is wrong. Let’s try to get it right.”

A spokesman for the Department of Corrections, Jerry Massie, said Director Robert Patton was “very pleased” with final passage of the bill. A spokesman for Fallin, Alex Weintz, said the governor is expected to act quickly to sign it.

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