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Oklahoma defends its handling of $2.8B in stimulus funds

Oklahoma defends its handling of $2.8B in stimulus funds

BY MICHAEL MCNUTT   - The Oklahoman

Published: November 5, 2009

Oklahoma correctly accepted and spent its federal stimulus funds, an assistant attorney general said Wednesday in arguing against a lawsuit that claimed Oklahoma officials acted wrongly.

In this Feb. 5, 2009, file photo Jerry Castillo of Norman, Okla., a concrete pump truck operator for Manhattan Road and Bridge Company, right, controls the flow of concrete as Marcus Lopez, left, works on the new I-40 Crosstown Bridge over Agnew St in Oklahoma City. President Obama's recovery plan includes $46 billion that would go to transportation projects such as highway, bridge and mass transit construction; many lawmakers wanted more. (AP Photo/Bill Waugh, File)
The approximately $2.8 billion in stimulus funds were earmarked for special purposes and specially marked federal funds don’t have to go through the process to approve and certify state money, Assistant Attorney General Scott Boughton told a state Supreme Court referee who heard arguments in the case.

Jerry Fent, an Oklahoma City lawyer, filed a lawsuit claiming the stimulus money should have gone to the state Equalization Board for its review and approval. The board, made up of seven state officials, sets the amount of state funds legislators can spend each year.

"The money must be certified first before it can be spent,” the Oklahoma City lawyer said. "I want that illegal spending stopped.”

Boughton said it’s complicated to keep all the federal spending money straight because it goes to several different purposes. He suggested perhaps the case should first be heard in district court instead of the Supreme Court.

The referee, Greg Albert, will make a report to the high court. Justices will consider his report and court filings.

Boughton said the federal stimulus funds are restricted, and as a result state officials have little leeway on how they are appropriated.

Fent said Oklahoma should determine how the money is spent. He called the governor and the attorney general federalists for accepting the money and giving up the authority on how to spend it.

Fent said a constitutional amendment passed by a 2-1 margin by voters in 1985 requires all federal funds be certified by the Equalization Board to determine available money for Oklahoma’s budget each year. State Question 587 basically changed the formula for estimating state revenue.

Gov. Brad Henry, who is chairman of the Equalization Board, earlier this year appointed a 15-member coordinating council to oversee Oklahoma’s use of the stimulus funds. He assigned state Auditor and Inspector Steve Burrage, another Equalization Board member, to ensure that the federal funds are spent correctly.

Fent named Henry, the Equalization Board, the governor’s coordinating council and the state Transportation Department as defendants. The department already has allocated nearly 90 percent of the $465 million in stimulus money it received. About $172 million has been paid to contractors working on projects.

About $1.2 billion of the stimulus money is for budget stabilization purposes. Legislators and the governor used about $630 million to make up for about a $600 million shortfall. Legislators plan to use the remaining $600 million or so for the budget for the 2011 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

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