Sunday, August 23, 2009

Local Officials Standing Up to the Legislature

I believe the best form of government is one in which a citizen board sits in oversight of a government entity without having the direct authority to determine who receives money from the government by way of targeting funds directly to the recipient. When elected officials have the direct authority to determine who receives government largesse, the potential for corruption dramatically increases.

I feel that the designers of Oklahoma's government ingrained this important concept deep into the foundations of our government by setting up a system by which the Legislature can determine policy and budget matters but should have no control over where the money is spent. This important safeguard is supposed to help keep Oklahoma legislators from becoming powerful political bosses who can use their authority to reward the privileged few at the cost of the taxpayers.

Legislators should certainly have the ability to expend funds in order to secure the proper support for the responsibilities of the Legislature such as hiring staff etc. They should not however be able to direct appropriated funds once those funds have been appropriated to the various agencies.

Oklahoma legislators have historically been experts at getting around these restrictions. They have found ways to "pass-through" money to certain entities where it is subsequently directed to the recipients of the legislators' choice. This allows for the possibility of corruption. In a recent federal criminal case, it has been demonstrated how legislators have used this system for their own direct financial benefit.

Unfortunately, this system of inappropriate pass-thoroughs is still alive and well. However, the recent effort of some courageous local officials could send a strong message to the Legislature and win a big victory for the taxpayers.

This year, one of the agencies chosen to pass through funding was the Department of Commerce. The Department of Commerce was ordered to send money to a group known as ACOG (Association of Central Oklahoma Governments) who in turn was directed to pass through about $16 million to third-party entities. Membership of ACOG includes representatives from central Oklahoma local governments. When it came time for the ACOG board to approve the pass-through funding, some of these courageous local officials (including Logan County Commissioner Mark Sharpton) successfully managed to stave off a vote and delay action on approving the funding which means the funding will not be passed through until at least the next meeting of the board. This may be the first time (at least that I am aware of) that a local government entity has stood up to the Legislature and attempted to not play the same old game that has caused Oklahoma taxpayers so much grief.

It is unbelievable, that even during a down financial year, the Legislature would continue to try to spend money in this way. However, if more local officials would show this same courage, it would make the Legislature think twice about using these methods to direct funds.

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