Audit resolution fails at state Capitol

·4 min read

Jun. 3—A lawmaker whose jurisdiction covers Cleveland and Pottawatomie counties plans to reintroduce a House resolution in the next session to force an audit of the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority.

The OTA unveiled its $5 billion, 15-year plan to expand the state's toll road system on Feb. 22. The ACCESS Oklahoma plan includes the construction of two turnpikes in Norman — one in east Norman in the Lake Thunderbird watershed to extend the Kickapoo Turnpike from Interstate 40 to Purcell, and a second along Indian Hills road to connect Moore, Oklahoma City and Norman.

Rep. Danny Sterling, R-Tecumseh, introduced HCR-1021 which he co-authored with Senator Mary Boren, D-Norman. It would require the State Auditor and Inspector to conduct a performance audit of the OTA every two years.

Resolutions do not have to be signed by the Governor.

The resolution would determine if the use of OTA money to purchase property followed state law and if the price was negotiated lawfully. It would also determine the amount of revenue needed to pay off the agency's debt, the resolution reads.

The audit report would be provided to House and Senate leadership and the Governor.

Sterling said the main focus of the resolution was to bring transparency to "how they do things from a financial standpoint with the bonds."

The resolution failed to pass both houses in time for the end of the legislative session, he said. Sterling plans to pick it back up following a hoped-for interim study.

"I do have plans to look at rewriting that next session," he said. "I know I can focus on that and not worry about campaigning. I ran unopposed, so I know I'll be there. Those are some of the goals I have."

Boren said there are many "opportunities to bring back the policy goals" lined out in the resolution and Senate Bill 1610, which failed to be heard by the House Conference Committee.

Committee chairman Ronnie Johns said last week that he and Sterling decided to request an interim study on the OTA before any bills were codified. The bill would have forced the OTA to conduct environmental studies before any bonds were issued for the turnpike projects.

Sterling said the study would be important to consider before legislation is filed. While the request must be granted by the House Speaker, he was confident that, if granted, it would be completed ahead of the December deadline to introduce bills.

The study will include subjects covered in the resolution and the bill, he said. The study will be far from "one-sided."

"It will be a very far-reaching interim study," Sterling said. "It can go a lot of different directions, but that's the point is to bring everyone to the table. Let's investigate it, get our facts straight, and also, that will be an opportunity for all parties. Affected citizens, municipalities that want input, OTA, ODOT [Oklahoma Department of Transportation] will have a chance to speak. It won't be one-sided."

Topics will include the history of the turnpike, the legality of buying property in advance of projects and transparency measures that exist or should exist, he said.

"It will be the genesis of legislation," Sterling said.

Sterling said it would take time to create change in the OTA.

"You're not going to come in with two bills and change it overnight," he said. "I'm not necessarily trying to stop ODOT or OTA from existing. That's not my point. We do have an infrastructure problem and we've got to address it. But the way we're going about addressing it, we need to make sure it's proper. I'm not [a] judge or jury on that right now, and that's why I want to do an interim study."

Norman City Council Rarchar Tortorello represents Ward 5, the portion of Norman that will be most impacted by turnpikes, and said it would be a study he won't miss.

"I'm encouraging my constituents, and the City of Norman, to attend any public meetings held in conjunction with this study to have their concerns heard," Tortorello said. "Bottom line, one of the biggest benefits of interim studies is that they provide an opportunity for legislators to hear experts from both sides. The point is to help them understand the complexities of this issue and come up with a better solution — a no-turnpike solution. Hopefully the consensus among our legislators on this contentious issue will be in our favor."

Tortorello was skeptical of what he called a "maneuver" to cause an unnecessary delay.

"Killing SB1610 just to have an interim study makes no sense," he said. "Usually, this occurs before a bill is passed."

Michael Nash, spokesman for the resistance group Pike Off OTA, declined to comment.

Both Nash and Tortorello filed lawsuits against the OTA last month. Pike Off OTA alleges the Turnpike Authority did not follow proper bond procedures to build some of its proposed turnpikes and that the east Norman turnpike is not authorized in statute.

Tortorello, along with 150 residents, allege the OTA didn't follow the state's Open Meeting Act.

Mindy Wood covers City Hall news and notable court cases for The Transcript. Reach her at mwood@normantranscript.com or 405-416-4420.