Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency
Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat (R-OKC) speaks with media Monday, March 4, 2019, in his office. (Tres Savage)

While answering questions about HB 2484, Rep. Jon Echols stood on the House floor and calmly revealed an alarming detail about Oklahoma’s government.

“During the budgetary process, it’s become routine for the Senate to have one set of numbers and the House to have another set of numbers,” said Echols (R-OKC). “It makes far more sense to have a fiscal team that, at the end of the day, answers to both sides of the Legislature so we are all operating off of the same numbers.”

The chamber’s majority floor leader, Echols was carrying the bill for House Speaker Charles McCall (R-Atoka) and said annual budget negotiations are strained when the House and Senate work from different budget numbers.

Echols told his fellow House members that the chamber’s current fiscal staff is overworked and unable to dive deeper on “fiscal impact statements” than simply calling agencies to ask what a proposal would cost. Sometimes, he said, chambers receive different answers.

HB 2484 would create the Office of Government Accountability within the Legislative Services Bureau and is conceptually similar to SB 1 by Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat (R-OKC).

“It’s an extremely important measure. It’s the reason it got the No. 1 status on Senate bill filing,” Treat said of his version, which would call the new budget office the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency. “This will give us independent, objective data to make decisions.”

#Okleg budget office: New hope for an old idea

For years, various Republican leaders of the Oklahoma Legislature have tried to create an arm of the LSB that can pursue audits, accumulate research and provide concrete fiscal figures during annual budget negotiations.

In 2008, lawmakers proposed the Office of Accountability and Innovation and passed it through both chambers as SB 1865. But when the bill landed on then-Gov. Brad Henry’s desk, the Shawnee Democrat vetoed it as “duplicative” and costly.

A decade later and on the heels of shocking financial revelations about state agency budgets, Treat and McCall are advancing slightly different versions of the same concept.

“Last year, I introduced this bill in the 56th (Legislature) and it just wasn’t a priority in the Senate,” McCall said Tuesday in his office. “But Pro Temp Treat came to me in the summer and said, ‘Hey, I think this is a good idea. I want to make it a priority. I want to work with you to get this accomplished.’ I think we’re very close on the details.”

The House’s version would specify the hiring of 15 fiscal staff for the new office, while the Senate version would create a 12-member perpetual standing joint committee of legislators. The Senate version specifies the hiring of an executive director, and Treat has estimated the hiring of six or eight fiscal staff. Lawmakers have dubbed the fiscal impact of the new agency to be between $1.67 million and $1.92 million, with roughly half of that money dedicated to start-up costs.

“We’re going to keep our version alive. They’re going to keep his bill alive,” McCall said of the two bills. “We’re both signed on to each other’s bills, so we’re going to get it worked out. I don’t think it goes to conference (committee) at all.”

The House’s bill would direct the new legislative office to “monitor” the Agency Performance and Accountability Commission’s work. The APAC was created by lawmakers in 2017 to study and audit the largest state agencies.

Virgin questions ‘mistrust’ of agencies

House Minority Leader Emily Virgin (D-Norman) questions House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols (R-OKC) during consideration of HB 2484 on Tuesday, March 12, 2019. (Tres Savage)

Democrats have been skeptical about creating a new budget arm of the Legislature.

“It seems redundant. It seems like these are things that the State Auditor and Inspector’s Office could already do,” House Minority Leader Emily Virgin (D-Norman) said Tuesday in her office. “If we would just fund them adequately, I’m sure they could do all of the things we want this office to do.”

But Echols disagreed on the House floor Tuesday, saying the Legislature is supposed to “write the test” while the State Auditor and Inspector’s Office “grades the test.”

“We need to make sure we are having strong financial numbers (to write the test),” Echols said.

Earlier in the week, Treat concurred and said the new budget office effort is worth a relatively small investment.

“It will pay for itself in the public’s ability to know that the Legislature is operating with true numbers and we are not just guessing out of thin air on numbers and that we are not beholden to executive branch agencies to tell us how much money they have and how much they need,” Treat said Monday.

But Virgin said McCall and Treat’s idea seems like further demonization of state agencies.

“There’s this notion that there’s all this waste and fraud and abuse at state agencies,” Virgin said. “Republicans have had control of every legislative body and the governor’s office for nine years now, and they haven’t found it.

“If you haven’t found it through audits from the State Auditor’s Office, creating some new agency is not going to give you the results that you want.”

Virgin said she “always” receives timely responses when asking agencies for fiscal details and has never had reason to question the accuracy.

“I don’t know where this mistrust is coming in. Maybe Sen. Treat has had a different experience, but every time that I’ve asked an agency about any program or what it costs or anything like that, they have given it to me,” Virgin said.

But McCall expressed the same frustration Echols did about reconciling financial data when numbers provided by state agencies to the House and the Senate do not match.

“It’s not always off, but there is a lot of time spent trying to reconcile and agree on what the actual number is,” McCall said. “I call it trust and verify. We trust on the front end that the agencies will need the money they ask for and will use it the way that they convey it, but there is no verification process within the legislative branch, or at least it’s very minimal.”

Conservative advocacy groups have supported the legislative leaders in their attempt to create the new office, whatever it is called.

“The creation of a Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency through SB 1 is a huge step forward toward making Oklahoma a customer-focused state government,” Americans for Prosperity Oklahoma state director John Tidwell said in a statement Monday.