Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Politicians Benefiting Off Of The Taxpayers

Murphey Legislative Update

In the upcoming three weeks, the House will begin hearing conference committee reports. In this process, legislation goes up for a final vote. Historically, the process has been subject to much abuse as last minute legislation and appropriations quickly pass with little opportunity for scrutiny.

I have spent time analyzing this process and specifically how legislators have personally benefited from directing money through last minute appropriation bills.

An example of this abuse recently hit close to home. A company in which long time State Senator Gene Stipe held a partnership appears to have benefited from funds passed through two state agencies and then used to purchase a train from Stipe's company on behalf of a Guthrie organization.

In order to recognize future attempts at similar abuses, I have studied how one can follow the money trail from the state's general fund to the legislator's pockets.

The process works much like this. Late in the legislative year, powerful legislators make use of a shell appropriations bill (a piece of legislation appropriating money that had no numbers in it) by inserting an amount of money to be used for "special projects." One of the vehicles used by the legislators for this purpose in the past has been an appropriations bill for the Oklahoma Department of Commerce. Certain Department of Commerce appropriations would be earmarked to pass through the Department of Commerce to a second government entity, such as one of the regional government councils. The director of the regional government council would than receive a call from the House of Representatives or the Senate. The caller would instruct the director on how he should spend that money. Sometimes the instructions might be for the money to pass to another government entity or even to a non-government entity. This money would be passed on without a vote of the board of the regional government council.

In this way, the money took a variety of twists and turns that made it almost impossible for the public to track. Even many legislators had little opportunity to know the purpose for which money was spent. This allowed powerful committee chairs and high ranking legislators to have a tremendous amount of control over dispensing government largess. In some years, the amount of special projects money in the Department of Commerce alone amounted to million of dollars.

Fortunately, it appears as if term limits has significantly reduced the ability of some legislators from being able to direct special projects money. However, I am convinced that the prospect for this type of corruption remains high as long as government remains large. When government is small and limited, the public has a greater ability to monitor it and keep it honest. When government grows tremendously, it makes it easy for corrupt politicians to take money off the top for their own benefit.

During the upcoming weeks, I am committed to close scrutiny of the appropriations process as final action is taken on how millions of our tax dollars are spent.

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