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Oklahoma Turnpike Authority to sue over new law on board appointments

The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority's governing board plans to sue over a new law that allows legislative leaders to make appointments to the board.
Carmen Forman
/
Oklahoma Voice
The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority's governing board plans to sue over a new law that allows legislative leaders to make appointments to the board.

The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority plans to sue over a new law that limits the governor’s ability to appoint members to the agency’s governing board.

The Turnpike Authority board on Tuesday voted unanimously to file a lawsuit challenging the law that took effect in November. It allows legislative leaders to make four of the six appointments to the agency’s board.

The Turnpike Authority’s legal counsel advised that the law is unconstitutional because giving legislative leaders the majority of the appointments violates the separation of powers between the Oklahoma Legislature and the executive branch, said board Chairman John Jones.

Gov. Kevin Stitt made similar arguments when he vetoed the legislation last year. Lawmakers overturned Stitt’s veto in May.

Jones said the uncertainty about the law’s constitutionality could lead to litigation challenging the legality of the board’s actions.

“If House Bill 2263 is unconstitutional, any action taken by this board to approve items of business, including the actions taken here today, may be subject to legal challenge, legitimate or otherwise,” Jones said. “The OTA cannot perform its essential functions for the state of Oklahoma without risk of facing a future challenge.”

The threat of litigation is real, he said, pointing to several lawsuits filed against the agency over its 15-year, $5 billion ACCESS toll road expansion.

Pike Off OTA, a group that has been critical of the ACCESS plan backed by Stitt, helped write the bill by Rep. Danny Sterling, R-Tecumseh, to give legislative leaders appointments to the board.

Sterling has previously said he doesn’t believe the measure is unconstitutional.

“In a way, I think that we have scared them into wanting to protect themselves from citizen review and citizen input,” Pike Off OTA member Pam Post said of the agency’s decision to sue.

Oklahoma’s governor has made all the appointments to the board since the Turnpike Authority was created by the Legislature in 1947.

Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, made the first legislative appointment to the board in December. He reappointed board member John Titsworth, whom Stitt had previously appointed.

Additional legislative appointments to the board are not expected soon because the law allows current board members to finish out their terms.

Secretary Tim Gatz said he has the utmost respect for Treat and House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka.

“This is not an adversarial action by the authority against the Legislature or either one of them,” he said. “This is something that has raised a shadow over the actions of the board, and we simply need clarity.”

Neither Treat nor McCall responded to requests for comment.

An attorney for the Turnpike Authority said he expects the lawsuit will be filed soon in Oklahoma County District Court.

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Oklahoma Voice is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oklahoma Voice maintains editorial independence.

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