The Oklahoma Ethics Commission requested roughly $3 million dollars for the 2019 fiscal year, which began July 1. But the legislature told the commission to use money collected through agency fees in its own revolving fund— some $700,000— to continue operating.
Now the commission is suing Governor Mary Fallin and other elected officials, alleging a violation of Oklahoma’s constitution, which requires the legislature to “sufficiently” fund the commission’s duties.
Executive Director Ashley Kemp says without more funding the ethics commission will not be able to thoroughly review campaign finance reports for the 2018 election cycle.
“Not having sufficient funds to have attorneys on staff which are able to guide those investigations really impedes our ability to effectively enforce our ethics rules in the state of Oklahoma to ensure clean and fair elections,” Kemp said.
In its pleading to the state Supreme Court, the commission noted when Oklahomans voted to write the ethics commission into the state constitution in 1990, part of the thinking was to give the agency a legal remedy in case the legislature tried to undermine its mission through the budget. Now that’s being put to the test.
The budget followed disagreement in May between lawmakers and the commission over lobbying restrictions for former elected officials. Gov. Mary Fallin signed House Joint Resolution 1029 on May 3rd, rejecting a rule requiring former lawmakers and some state employees to wait two years after leaving office before becoming lobbyists. It was one of seven rules the legislature attempted to quash.
“They were promulgating rules that dealt with private citizens, which was beyond their scope,” said Rep. John Paul Jordan, (R-Yukon) who authored the resolution. “Even if we’re thinking it’s a good idea, I think we need to stand strong against government exercising authority it doesn’t have.”
Jordan believes a rule regulating the activity of people after they leave office would have to be passed by the legislature.
Ethics Commission Chairman John Hawkins believes there is a connection between the spat over ethics rules and the agency’s meager budget.
“The retaliation on a state agency by cutting their budget for doing their job is unconscionable,” Hawkins wrote in a letter to lawmakers.
The first hearing for the lawsuit is set for July 31. The commission will make its case in front of a referee, rather than the justices. Following the hearing the court can rule, dismiss the case or request oral arguments.