Dams project encounters further delay
BY WAYNE GREENE World Senior Writer
Saturday, July 14, 2012
7/14/12 at 6:58 AM
OKLAHOMA CITY - A long-delayed plan to sell $25 million in bonds for dams on the Arkansas River is headed to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, further delaying the project.
"It's extremely frustrating," said state Finance Secretary Preston Doerflinger, a member of the Oklahoma Capitol Improvement Authority. "I think this was probably the best opportunity to get resolution on the issue."
The bonds - first approved by the Legislature in 2009 - have never been sold, and the project sits waiting for money.
In January, the state bond oversight council balked at efforts to sell the bonds, saying the nature of the project had changed since the Legislature approved the plan.
Originally, the bonds were described as financing for a series of dams on the river, but the intention was changed to use the state money only to repair and improve the existing Zink Lake dam on the river near 31st Street, the council said.
But in February, the council reversed course and approved the bond sale after Tulsa officials explained that the project still envisions all of the originally proposed dams but that the state money was going to be used on the first phase of the operation, the Zink Dam improvements.
The rest of the project will await funding from the federal government and other sources.
After the bond oversight council's action, the bond sale was again delayed when Sen. Patrick Anderson, R-Enid, asked Attorney General Scott Pruitt for an opinion on the constitutionality of the bond sale.
In addition to questioning whether the bond money was being used differently than as described to the Legislature, Anderson asked whether the bond would create a state debt without a constitutionally required vote of the people and whether using the bond money on a dam that isn't owned by the state would amount to an illegal gift of state funds.
"The proper way to address this matter would be to bring it before the Legislature for consideration," Anderson said in a Friday press release. "Unfortunately, several former and current state leaders have attempted to circumvent the Legislature and the state Constitution in this process."
Former Oklahoma Speaker of the House Chris Benge, who now works for the Tulsa Metro Chamber, said the Legislature has approved the bond project on four different occasions.
Last month, the Capitol Improvement Authority asked the Attorney General's Office for an update on Anderson's request and was told that the issue needed to go to the Supreme Court for resolution, said State Bond Advisor Jim Joseph.
Diane Clay, spokeswoman for the Attorney General's Office, said filings in the case likely will be put before the Supreme Court next month. The Attorney General's Office will represent the authority, arguing the case for issuing the bonds, she said.
Joseph said the authority has already invested time and money in the process but that work will likely have to start over because of the delays.
He said the dam project isn't different from past projects that didn't need approval by state voters. In each case, the state enters a one-year lease-purchase with the expectation that the Legislature will renew the lease each year in the amount of the bond debt. In this case, the lease would be for the dam's improvements.
The authority, which would issue the bonds, is made up of the governor, the lieutenant governor, the state treasurer, the director of state finance, the director of human services, the state transportation director, the head of the state tax commission and the state transportation director.
Joseph said past general obligation bonds, which were approved by popular votes, were for work on private property but that he isn't certain that bond issues similar to the dam projects have been arranged that way.
Benge said he is frustrated that the bond project has again been slowed.
"I think we would have liked to have seen it addressed at the (attorney general) level, but it's really hard to say if it's good news or bad news," he said.
"It definitely slows the process down."
A history of Tulsa's Arkansas River bond funding
Sept. 9, 2003: Voters approve $9.5 million for Arkansas River projects as part of the Vision 2025 sales tax initiative.
Oct. 9, 2007: Tulsa County voters reject a $154.85 million sales tax initiative for river improvements.
Sept. 24, 2007: U.S. Senate approves $50 million authorization in the Water Resources Development Act for Arkansas River development.
June 5, 2008: Gov. Brad Henry signs a $75 million legislative bond package that includes $25 million for Arkansas River development. The package also includes $25 million for the American Indian Cultural Center in Oklahoma City and $25 million for conservation dams around the state. Bonds for the other two projects have been sold and that money has been spent.
Feb. 26, 2009: Oklahoma Supreme Court rules Tulsa bond funding unconstitutional because the package includes more than one project.
April 27, 2009: Henry signs another bill authorizing $25 million in bonds for the river project. Twice since then, the Legislature has appropriated funding for the project.
Jan. 26: Oklahoma Council of Bond Oversight rejects bonds.
Feb. 9: Under pressure from the Oklahoma Capitol Improvement Authority, the bond oversight council approves the bonds for sale. Subsequently, Sen. Patrick Anderson, R-Enid, asks Attorney General Scott Pruitt for an opinion on three constitutional questions concerning the proposed bond issue.
June 25: The Capitol Improvement Authority directs the Attorney General's Office to direct pending constitutional questions to the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
Original Print Headline: River project faces new delay
Wayne Greene 918-581-8308
Improvements on the Zink Lake dam are a key, initial part of the latest proposal. CORY YOUNG/Tulsa World