Wednesday, September 5, 2012
It Is Time To End Pork Earmarks
The issue of pork earmarks or legislative pass-throughs has received a bit of public scrutiny within the past few weeks after the Oklahoma Council on Public Affairs, an Oklahoma City television station, and one of the state's largest newspapers investigated and criticized the ongoing practice. The Oklahoma Constitution prevents the Oklahoma Legislature from appropriating money directly to entities which are not state agencies. This very important prohibition attempts to separate pork politics from the way your taxpayer dollars are spent. If one legislator can win approval for appropriating money to friends back in his district, he will probably be required to trade favors -- and other legislators will do the same. In the end, taxpayer money will be spent based not on the merits of the entity receiving the largess, but on the deal-making political power of those in the Legislature. The separation of policy making functions from spending processes is one of the most important concepts of good government. An entity who receives money from the government should always have to compete with other entities through a clear and transparent bidding process by which a contract is awarded to the best bidder. An entity should never receive an award simply because legislators pulled political strings. When legislators are given the power to directly appropriate to a specific organization, the climate is set for corruption. Legislators will naturally become heavily influenced by contribution from those who are close to the entities receiving the award. Historically, legislators have gotten around the constitutional prohibition as follows: instead of trying to directly appropriate money to a private entity, the Legislature has simply approved a "pass-through" appropriation by first appropriating money to a state agency and then passing a law telling the agency how to spend the money. What is worse, this was also accomplished at times by simple verbal direction. A state agency or a regional government entity such as the local Association of Central Oklahoma Governments might get a call from a legislative staffer telling them that they were going to be given some money and then directing them how to spend it. In my view, all forms of pass-throughs are inappropriate, but these verbal pass-throughs are most unethical. They are not transparent and they are carried out by very powerful lawmakers who cannot prove legislative intent. Over the last three budget years, it appears that all pass-through appropriations have been made by verbal or written direction but few, if any, were approved by a vote of the Legislature. Usually these appropriations occur through the Tourism, Agriculture or Commerce state agencies. A few months ago I wrote about the role that the new transperancy tools such as OpenBooks.Ok.gov or Data.Ok.gov are playing in exposing these appropriations. In the past, a pass-through might never have received public purview. However, as you may recall, I wrote about how even though pass-through laws were not being approved by a vote of the Legislature. We could use Open Books to see the ongoing expenditures to an entity simply known as "A Pocket Full Of Hope," which had previously received statutory pass-throughs. This brought into question the possibility that well-placed legislators were continuing to give orders to agencies to pass-through the money without a vote of the Legislature ever approving the expenditure. I very much believe that with the implementation of these new tools, the work by the Oklahoma Council on Public Affairs, the attention provided by the press, and the new wave of reform minded lawmakers, the days of the legislative pass-through are very limited. In the past, it wasn't easy to talk to other lawmakers about the need to end this practice. Today it is very different. A significant number of lawmakers have been disturbed by the recent reports and I think they are the catalyst to ending the practice as soon as next year. Those who continue to participate in these practices are now in the minority. I am glad to report that the days of the pork earmarks are limited.