Oklahoma Supreme Court nixes Zink Lake dam bond issue
BY WAYNE GREENE World Senior Writer & KEVIN CANFIELD World Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 21, 2012
11/21/12 at 7:58 AM
Editorial: Inhofe still has hope.
OKLAHOMA CITY - The Oklahoma Supreme Court unanimously ruled Tuesday that a planned $25 million bond issue to improve the Zink Lake dam on the Arkansas River is unconstitutional.
"The proponents of the bonds go to great lengths to attempt to show that the bond issues will provide the state of Oklahoma not only with economic benefits, but cultural and ecological benefits as well," the decision written by Justice Yvonne Kauger says. "In reality, the bonds appear to be nothing more than a gift to the city of Tulsa and surrounding communities from the state."
Such a gift is specifically prohibited by the state constitution, so the bond financing is not legal, the court found.
This marks the second time the high court has blocked state bond financing for Arkansas River projects in Tulsa County.
In 2008, the Legislature had approved a three-piece bond issue that included construction funding for Tulsa-area dams, the American Indian Cultural Center in Oklahoma City and conservation dams in rural areas around the state, but the Supreme Court ruled that the legislation violated the state constitution's prohibition of packaging multiple pieces of legislation in a single bill, also known as "logrolling." Only funding for the cultural center was allowed to move ahead.
Subsequently, the Legislature passed single-issue bond bills for the Tulsa project and the conservation dams, and the Oklahoma Council of Bond Oversight moved ahead with the dam bond plan earlier this year.
Mayor Dewey Bartlett said he strongly disagreed with the court's decision, questioning whether road projects that benefit a specific community could similarly be seen as unconstitutional gifts.
"I look at the American Indian Cultural Center in Oklahoma City. I think it was partially funded by a bond issue," Bartlett said.
"Does this really bring into question a bridge that goes into a particular community? Is that a gift to that community?"
River Parks Chairman Jim McCarthy said the court's ruling was especially difficult because it follows the defeat of Vision2, which included local funding for Zink Dam improvements.
"I would like to say on behalf of everyone who enjoys the river, we tried very hard but we didn't win," McCarthy said.
McCarthy said the River Parks Authority would attempt to raise the funds needed to repair the dam's leaking seals and gates.
River Parks Executive Director Matt Meyer said he also was disappointed in the court's decision.
"From our perspective, the dam needs some repairs - that is for sure," Meyer said. "The gates still leak. The seals leak. So the lake drains in two or three days if there is no release from Keystone Dam.
"From the rowing club's perspective and just for the aesthetics," repairs are needed, he said.
Enid attorney Cliff Elliott, former chairman of the bond oversight council, argued against the bonds before the Supreme Court this month.
He said the court's decision says nothing about the merits of the Arkansas River projects, and there is still a possibility for bond financing if proponents can find a legal means of structuring the deal.
"I'm hopeful the city will go ahead and make these improvements and structure it in a way that meets the constitution, and I'm confident that they can because they're really meritorious projects," Elliott said. "This was just a structure problem. There's absolutely nothing wrong with the projects. I just hate that they weren't structured correctly."
The court found that a lease arrangement on dam improvements between the River Parks Authority and the state Department of Central Services wasn't sufficient to give the state a legitimate interest in the project.
Referring to the lease as "fictional," the court found that "the State's involvement in this project exists only to lend its credit to and make a donation for the benefit of the municipality."
However, the high court ruled against opponents of the bond plan when they argued that state law creating the Oklahoma Capitol Improvement Authority - the proposed issuer of the bonds - allowed for funding of projects such as state office buildings and roads, but not dams.
The court made no ruling on another argument raised in court - that the bond plan approved by the Legislature for Arkansas River projects was significantly different from the proposed bonds.
Sen. Patrick Anderson, R-Enid, argued to the court that the projects were so different that the Legislature would have to reconsider the proposal before it could move forward.
Efforts to reach Anderson by telephone Tuesday were unsuccessful, and he did not address the issue of legislative authorization in a statement he released electronically.
"I appreciate the court's prompt attention to this matter and I certainly agree with the Court's conclusion that the issuance of these bonds would violate the Constitution of the State of Oklahoma," Anderson said in his statement.
"In the future, I would hope that policy makers will pay closer attention to the state Constitution."
What the Oklahoma Constitution says
Article, section 14:
"...(T)he State shall not assume the debt of any county, municipal corporation, or political subdivision of the state, unless such debt shall have been contracted to defend itself in time of war, to repel invasion, or to suppress insurrection."
Article 10, section 15:
"... (T)he credit of the state shall not be given, pledged, or loaned to any individual, company, corporation, or association, municipality, or political subdivision of the state, nor shall the state become an owner or stockholder in, nor make donation by gift, subscription to stock, by tax, or otherwise, to any company, association, or corporation."
Original Print Headline: Court nixes Zink Dam bond
Wayne Greene 918-581-8308 Kevin Canfield 918-581-8313
Patrick Anderson: The lawmaker said he agrees with the court's decision on the bond