Budget Transparency In Oklahoma

As a practicing attorney I read a lot! I read everything from texts, emails, and letters to complex legal opinions from state and federal courts to books and other periodicals on subject matter relevant to my work. I also spend a lot of time writing. My oldest has always wanted to write creatively for a living and she was surprised to learn how much of my job involved writing things like court briefs, legal opinions, and complicated correspondence.

I subscribe to many news and listserv services to cultivate important information for me to know to do my job better and to be in the know for my clients. Some days my email feels overrun with information but its important for me to filter through all of it to stay up to date on what is changing in my field. One service I subscribe to is called Oklahoma Policy Institute (OPI). OPI describes itself as an independent, non-partisan, and non-profit dedicated to advancing equitable and fiscally responsible policies for Oklahoma government.

One of the articles from OPI recently discussed the lack of transparency in the Oklahoma Budget Process. OPI claimed that Oklahoma is “one of the least transparent in the nation.” Finding that the public is “largely left out of the budget process and deprived of basic expectations of government…” OPI found that Oklahoma had the 3rd shortest budget review process on average with the legislature having less than 24 hours to review and vote on the current budget. Even Governor Stitt called out the lack of transparency in Oklahoma’s budget making process. The Oklahoma Legislature is also exempt from the Open Meetings Act which further precludes public involvement. OPI pointed out that the public needed to be involved in the budget process which spends some ten billion dollars per year.

Thankfully, counties are subject to the Open Meetings Act and the County Budget Act. The Open Meetings Act requires that public bodies give notice in advance of the topics to be discussed at various meetings. Notice must be published at least 24 hours in advance in a publicly accessible place and identify all items to be discussed in a meeting.

In Canadian County the budget process is governed by the County Budget Act set forth at 19 O.S. §1401 et seq. This act creates a County Budget Board and establishes the procedure by which the budget is produced. This is also explained in the annual auditor's report which is produced in compliance with multiple state laws. While state statute only requires that a budget be prepared for the county general and health care fund, it has always been Canadian County’s policy and practice to prepare a budget based on all fund usage. The practice is for the head of each department to submit a budget for the coming year to the County Commissioners. It is not optional, as one county elected official has claimed, to produce a budget because the County Commissioners require it even if the law does not. The Board of County Commissioners has a legal duty to ensure the fiscal responsibility of other county officers who handle county funds and in reports that I have been able to review, they have required all departments to present an annual estimate of needs since at least 2003.

The County Estimate of Needs, Financial Statements, and Annual Auditors' Reports are an excellent source of information for how spending is occurring in the county, but even these reports do not clearly disclose all the expenditures that are made with tax dollars and expenditures can easily be hidden if we aren’t given access to reports and information. Our county also utilizes encumbrance purchasing. Improperly encumbered purchases can create havoc on the system and result in improper and illegal purchases by the county. Purchase orders and the invoices for encumbrance purchases are only available by submitting an open records request through the County Clerk. It is in reviewing these matters that one is likely to find the improper purchasing practices.

Recently, I requested purchasing records and the request was improperly denied by county lawyers claiming it was too broad. The entitlement to these records is clearly set out in the annual auditor's report and in the Open Records Act. Thankfully, we have a conscientious County Clerk who produced the records requested, despite being given incorrect legal advice. Ms. Murray produced the records in an efficient, economical, and prompt manner. Ms. Murray’s actions proved a very important point about government – transparency is key whether its required or not – to winning the public trust and Ms. Murray earned my trust for her transparency.

Oklahoma has a problem with transparency in the expenditure of public funds. As a voting public we should be wary of any government official or their lawyers claiming they do not have a duty to be open about the spending of tax dollars or who obstructs the right of the public to access the records on those expenditures.


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Rachel Bussett is an attorney with 19 years of experience. She is motivated and inspired to fight for kids and all Oklahomans. 

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