After nine great years at The Oklahoman as a Business Reporter and Database Editor, I’m leaving for another job out of state. I start in early October at USA Today in the Washington DC area.
I will miss friends, colleagues and readers who have supported me and offered feedback over the years.
For those of you who have been loyal readers from the beginning in March 2008, thanks for staying interested. For those of you who have stumbled across this blog via a wrong turn on Google, thanks for stopping by. Hopefully you found the content on this blog interesting and engaging.
If you’re interested in government transparency, come out to the annual FOI Oklahoma Inc.** Sunshine Conference on Saturday, March 12. The event is from 8:30 a.m to 3:30 p.m. at The Oklahoman, 9000 Broadway Extension, Oklahoma City.
The conference will kick off Sunshine Week, a national initiative to promote openness in government and empower the right to know among the people.
This year’s theme is “Putting Muscle Behind Oklahoma’s FOI Laws.” Registration is $35, but there are special rates for students and current FOI Oklahoma members. Check out a PDF of the schedule.
[Update: There also will be a silent auction, the proceeds of which will benefit FOI Oklahoma's Sunshine Fund. The organization used its first grant from that fund to help defray the costs of an Open Meetings Act lawsuit filed by citizen activists. Among the items up for bidding are an evening in an Oklahoma RedHawks suite at the Bricktown Ballpark; a one-night stay at the Colcord Hotel, among others. More items here. ]
The following is from Joey Senat, associate professor of journalism at Oklahoma State University and a former president of FOI Oklahoma:
The conference’s keynote speaker is a national Open Government Hall of Fame inductee, who will offer advice on creating a state agency that Oklahomans can go to for help when officials wrongly withhold records or restrict access to open meetings.
As executive director for the nation’s first-such state agency, Robert J. “Bob” Freeman is responsible for providing advice about New York’s open records and meeting laws to the public, state and local governments, and the media.
Freeman’s keynote address also will offer advice on making Oklahoma’s open government laws work for the public.
Other sessions include:
- A state representative [Rep. Jason Murphey] discussing bills requiring the Legislature to comply with Oklahoma’s Open Meeting and Records laws;
- A panel of local heroes who have gone to court seeking information under the Open Records Act and challenging the conduct of public bodies under the Open Meeting Act; and
- Experts explaining how to use the Open Records Act to request records and to spot the most-likely violations of the Open Meeting Act.
The luncheon will include a tribute to former Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice Marian Opala. Recipients of FOI Oklahoma Inc.’s annual Marian Opala First Amendment Award and three freedom-of-information awards will be recognized, as will the winners of its first FOI essay contest for college students.
Please support open government in Oklahoma by attending this conference. More people equal a bigger message to those in government who ignore our state’s Open Records and Open Meeting laws.
**Full disclosure: I am a board member of FOI Oklahoma Inc. I’ll also be speaking on one of the panels.
In case you missed it, I’m re-posting a version of my Sunday story about how state agencies have a combined $1.2 billion holed up in their revolving funds.
It looks like some lawmakers are already taking action, including Rep. Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie, who announced on Twitter yesterday that he plans to amend House Bill 1086 to ask the Office of State Finance to post monthly revolving fund balances on the state’s new data.ok.gov site.
Then, the Associated Press reported yesterday that Republican legislative leaders were close to a deal to divert $5.2 million in a Corrections Department revolving fund to make up a shortfall in the current fiscal year. [UPDATE: Read the Tulsa World story on March 3 by Barbara Hoberock.]
If you go to our Revolving Fund balances, you’ll see on Page 6 the Corrections Department had about $7.15 million in their Corrections Industries revolving fund as of December 2010.
Here’s the part of the document that deals with the Corrections Department: (Click for a larger version)
The Corrections Industries fund grew from $1.8 million in 2008 to $5.56 million in 2009. I’m not sure what limitations are on that fund, but the Corrections Department seeks additional money each year to deal with prison overcrowding. Spokesman Jerry Massie said the Corrections Industries fund has a current balance of about $6 million. Lawmakers are meeting today to go over a possible agreement, he said.
Here’s Sunday’s story:
By PAUL MONIES
As Oklahoma lawmakers and Gov. Mary Fallin grapple with an estimated $500 million shortfall in the annual budget, state agencies have a combined $1.2 billion stashed away in their revolving funds.
Leading the way is the Transportation Department’s revolving fund for county roads and bridges, which had more than $159 million. The University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center had almost $63 million in its education and general revenue revolving fund. The boll weevil eradication revolving fund had a balance of $2 million.
At the other end of the scale, the minority business development revolving fund at the Commerce Department had just $1. The Agriculture Department’s junior livestock auction revolving fund totaled $43.
Those figures are from the Office of State Finance, which provided the December balances for the last three years for more than 500 revolving funds at state agencies. The information was collected via an open records request by The Oklahoman.
Revolving funds are not part of the annual appropriations from the general revenue fund and are usually funded by fees or other sources, said state Comptroller Brenda Bolander. Depending on how they were set up, some revolving funds have designated functions and can only spend money on certain activities.
Other revolving funds might collect fees for one purpose and divert a portion of those fees to the state’s general revenue fund, Bolander said. That’s how revolving funds work at some of the regulatory boards such as the accountancy board.
Lawmakers tap revolving funds
Still, spending from many revolving funds is at the discretion of each state agency. Lawmakers also tap revolving funds to make up shortfalls in other agencies. That can pave the way for some interesting accounting games during budget negotiations, said Jonathan Small, fiscal policy director at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank based in Oklahoma City.
“The revolving funds are where a lot of this discussion needs to be had,” said Small, a former budget analyst at the Office of State Finance. “That’s a whole lot of money for us to be hearing that oxygen masks are going to be taken off children and old people are going to be lying in the street.”
Many times, the revolving funds are an afterthought in budget discussions, Small said.
“In the budget hearings, most of the discussion is about what appropriations the agency needs and not necessarily their other funding sources,” Small said. “A lot of times the members don’t have a clue about what’s in an agency’s revolving fund. The agency knows way more about what’s in there and what’s spent than the legislator does.”
The money from the wire transmitter fee revolving fund at the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control was central to recent allegations of bribery against former Democratic state Sen. Debbe Leftwich and Rep. Randy Terrill, R-Moore.
Revolving fund allegations
Prosecutors allege Terrill won legislative approval last year to move money from the wire transfer fee fund to the state medical examiner’s office to pay for a new position that was offered to Leftwich as a bribe. In exchange, Leftwich would agree not to run for re-election to her Oklahoma City senate seat and clear the way for a Republican candidate backed by Terrill, prosecutors charged.
Both have denied wrongdoing.
That wire transfer fee revolving fund comes from a flat, $5 fee up to the first $500 wired from places such as Western Union, plus one percent of any amount above that. The fee is not charged for wiring money from banks.
The wire transmitter revolving fund, which was created in 2009, had a balance of $2.59 million at the end of December, according to the Office of State Finance.
Darrell Weaver, director of the narcotics bureau, said about 30 percent of his agency’s funding comes from annual appropriations by the Legislature. The rest comes from fees that go to his agency’s revolving funds.
“We need those funds to be able to operate,” Weaver said. “For me, it’s just trying to keep revenue sources to keep my agency going and be effective.”
By far, the largest chunk of money in revolving funds comes in the state Transportation Department. The department had 12 revolving funds with a combined balance of more than $253 million in December 2010.
Mike Patterson, deputy director of the Transportation Department, said that money goes to a variety of transportation projects. Among those are rural transit subsidies, machinery and equipment leased to counties, and general road and bridge construction.
Patterson said lawmakers haven’t recently tapped Transportation Department funds for other uses because there is broad support for improved roads and bridges. But last year, as part of the budget deal, $65 million from the department’s revolving funds was exchanged for extra authorization to sell $65 million in bonds.
“We traded cash for bonds then, and the governor’s budget for 2012 has a similar deal for $100 million,” Patterson said. “Both of those we can handle. We’ll have to make a few tough decisions in terms of some operations, but we have such a large amount of bondable activities that we can handle the $100 million.”
OU’s Health Sciences Center’s main revolving fund had more than $63 million as of December. Catherine Bishop, OU’s vice president for public affairs, said the fund is the main source of general operations for the Health Sciences Center in Oklahoma City. Money for that fund comes from a range of sources, including state appropriations, student tuition and fees, endowment revenue distributions and overhead reimbursements from grants and contracts, she said.
Joe Harris, director of the Oklahoma Boll Weevil Eradication Office, said his agency’s revolving fund was set up by state law for ongoing operations and to provide contingency funds if another boll weevil outbreak happens in the state. Boll weevils can devastate cotton crops.
“We’re self-funded by the cotton producers, so we’re not a drag on the state’s budget in any way,” Harris said. “We and other cotton-producing states that have eradication programs have contingency money set aside on the off chance that we do have an emergency. Hopefully we don’t have to ever use that emergency money.”
Harris said money for the revolving fund, which had a December balance of $2 million, comes from a $2-per-acre fee on cotton harvested and sold.
At more than 500 revolving funds, the number of revolving funds probably could be revisited, especially when some have low balances and little activity, Bolander said.
“We are usually pretty strict with the agencies,” Bolander said. “We will not give them a revolving fund unless they have legislation authorizing it. There are a few exceptions, but our general rule is: fewer funds are better.”
It’s that time of year, when we in the news business run endless lists and end-of-year wrap-ups. I’m jumping on the bandwagon, so here goes:
Thanks for reading, and have a Happy New Year!
Congrats also to the News9/News on 6 Oklahoma Impact Team from Oklahoma City and Tulsa TV stations for their stimulus reporting in the past year.
From OFRG’s press release:
“OFRG is committed to improving transparency in government and we want to highlight individuals and groups doing the same,” said OFRG Executive Director Brian Downs. “Oklahoma taxpayers deserve to know how their money is being spent and thanks to the efforts of the Oklahoma Impact Team and The Oklahoman, that information is being made public.”
I’ve been at the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference here in Las Vegas for the last few days. I’m speaking this morning about public records and transparency issues at the state level.
Here’s a link to my tipsheet.
The Gov 2.0a conference had a busy first day on Thursday at the Cox Convention Center in Oklahoma City. There’s a lot of good work being done both in Oklahoma and nationally in terms of government transparency, technology and citizen engagement.
I gave an abbreviated version of this presentation on an afternoon panel with Matt Mueller, city manager of Guthrie; Stephen Nolen, chief information officer for Shawnee; and Craige Baird, technology services director for Ponca City.
Developing a Data Ecosystem: Media’s Role in Gov 2.0
Unfortunately, I don’t have time to recap all the presentations from Day One, but among the highlights were presentations by Laurel Ruma, the Gov 2.0 evangelist for O’Reilly Media Inc., and a keynote speech Thursday evening by Oklahoma’s new chief information officer Alex Pettit.
Pettit, who has held technology positions with the Denton, Texas, and Brown University in Rhode Island, had a refreshing take on the technology landscape in state government. In his experience, Pettit said vendors have gained most of the power in technology procurement and processes and often work with information specialists inside agencies to block changes. (Read more on those types of “iron triangles” and “regulatory capture.”)
Pettit has been on the job for a little over one month. In a humorous aside, he described his efforts to reach out to some of the technology heads at various state agencies to ask them about their plans for fiscal year 2011. Aside a few who ignored the e-mails, some e-mailed back to ask just one question: “Do we have to comply?” with Pettit’s request.
“My mother would call that chutzpah,” Pettit said.
Pettit said he had no silver bullets to reform state technology and that he was committed to active consultations with the users, buyers and managers of technology at state agencies. (Keep in mind that Pettit’s position does not cover any technology controlled by the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education, which lobbied to be kept off the law that created the CIO position at the end of the 2009 legislative session.)
He said state technology should move to a “one state” focus on the ultimate end user: the citizen. Part of the solution will be recognizing that political leadership and citizens are “outcome oriented,” while those in charge of technology at state agencies are often “process oriented.”
A few things to note:
2. I recently recorded a podcast with Peter J. Rudy with Oklahomans for Responsible Government. We talked about transparency efforts at the state and local level.
3. My friend Michelle Minkoff, a recent graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, has been profiling database journalists and computer-assisted reporting experts as part of her “Data Delvers” series. She’s interviewed some of the giants in the field, including Phil Meyer, and some of the not-so-giants, like me. Best of luck to Michelle as she embarks on an internship with the Los Angeles Times Data Desk.
4. The Oklahoman/NewsOK recently won several First Amendment awards at the Fort Worth Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. My DataWatch blog won in the Commentary/Opinion category for a post last year on the Oklahoma Supreme Court.