A bill aimed at making changes to the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority’s governing board overwhelmingly passed the state legislature in the wake of controversy over the agency’s $5 billion, bond-financed extension project.

The measure was approved in a veto-proof 82-2 vote Thursday in the House after passing the Senate last month in a 41-2 vote. 

The legislation would strip the governor of his sole ability to appoint the six-member OTA board of directors, giving two appointments each to the governor, House speaker, and Senate president pro tempore. It also would reduce new board members’ terms to six years from eight years, allow for a member’s removal for cause, and prohibit members from voting on any issue in which they have a direct financial interest.

Since Gov. Kevin Stitt officially unveiled ACCESS Oklahoma (Advancing and Connecting Communities and Economies Safely Statewide) in February 2022, the OTA has been the target of lawsuits brought by property owners in the project’s path, the subject of an investigative audit ordered by state Attorney General Gentner Drummond, and a barrage of reform bills in the legislature.

Republican State Rep. Danny Sterling, House Bill 2263’s sponsor, said he believes both chambers would override a veto should it happen. 

“This is just one attempt to ensure more legislative oversight and to assure Oklahomans that they are being heard and being represented in both the House and the Senate by giving both chambers power to appoint members to the board and not just leaving that up to the power of the governor,” he said in an email. 

There was no immediate comment from Stitt’s office.

Turnpike project opponents cheered the legislation.

“We believe the passage of HB 2263 marks an important step towards improving transparency and accountability at the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority,” said Tassie Katherine Hirschfeld, lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that resulted in a December ruling finding OTA willfully violated the state’s Open Meeting Act by failing to disclose the project on its board meeting agendas.

OTA, which is appealing that ruling, said the current board appointment process has served the state and the turnpike well in fulfilling its over 70-year mission to develop “critically needed transportation infrastructure” authorized by the legislature. 

“However, the OTA will support and implement the board of directors structure the legislature and governor feel is the best path forward,” it added in a statement.

Last month, OTA halted construction work related to the extension project over concerns about its access to the municipal bond market, where it plans to sell $500 million of revenue bonds if the debt is validated by the Oklahoma Supreme Court.  Last week, Wells Fargo resigned as lead underwriter for the deal after it was placed on the state treasurer’s list of companies banned from government contracts for boycotting the fossil fuel industry. 

Randy Carter, a spokesman for Oklahomans for Responsible Transportation, said while only HB 2263 made it to the finish line, his group will push to get other bills passed in 2024.

Articles You May Like

5 Best Places To Buy Cheap Real Estate Right Now, According To An Expert
Retail muni bond ownership trends hold in second quarter
Aggie bond legislation revived in Senate
Blockchain detectives: Mt. Gox collapse saw birth of Chainalysis
Sunak considers move to ban smoking for next generation