From left, Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat (R-OKC) speaks to Senate Appropriations and Budget Chairman Roger Thompson (R-Okemah), House Appropriations and Budget Chairman Kevin Wallace (R-Wellston) and Rep. Kyle Hilbert (R-Bristow) at the first meeting of LOFT at the Oklahoma State Capitol on Tuesday, July 30, 2019. (Tres Savage)

State lawmakers, legislative staff, lobbyists, media and other onlookers packed three Oklahoma State Capitol conference rooms this afternoon for the first meeting of LOFT, the Legislature’s new sub-agency dedicated to “fiscal transparency.”

“This empowers us to do the jobs that the people elected us all to do,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat (R-OKC), himself not a member of the new committee. “This is the start of something special that will change the way we do business at the Legislature.”

Treat has consistently praised the idea behind the new Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency, but has has been far from the only elected official to do so. House Appropriations and Budget Chairman Kevin Wallace (R-Wellston) spoke to media after Tuesday’s meeting, saying he hopes LOFT will provide more technical data, greater efficiencies and “a deeper dive into the numbers.”

“I can tell you that the decisions we are asked to make are only as good as the information we get,” Wallace said. “Two years ago, I sat at a table when an agency said, ‘Hey, we have to have $30 million to make payroll by Tuesday,’ so the Legislature had to make some tough decisions. We gave them the money.”

Wallace was discussing the Oklahoma State Department of Health, which was found to have co-mingled state and federal funds in a manner that led to a perceived fiscal crisis. Ultimately, however, the Legislature took the $30 million back because the unaccounted-for money was located in the agency’s antiquated bookkeeping system.

“After the audit was done, it came back that they had the money,” Wallace said. “We hope that never happens again. I believe with a structure like this we can prevent that from happening again.”

LOFT ‘the intelligence-gathering arm’ of the #okleg

Overall, Tuesday’s first LOFT meeting took less than 20 minutes. Wallace’s LOFT co-chairman is Senate Appropriations and Budget Chairman Roger Thompson (R-Okemah), who urged the committee to be thorough in its upcoming activities.

“Speed is not what we’re after,” Thompson said after working group membership was assigned.

One of the LOFT working groups will be tasked with coming up with the job description for a future LOFT executive director. A separate working group will be focused on crafting rules for the LOFT legislative committee, which will have subpoena power.

House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols (R-OKC) said Tuesday’s meeting was a standard organizational effort.

“We need the rules we are going to abide by and what we are going to use to grade our executive director hire,” Echols said. “We need to plan solid rules not just for this year and this team, but for how it’s going to function in the future. If it functions at its best, it will function as something that can work hand-in-glove to be the intelligence-gathering arm of the Legislature.”

Background on LOFT

Lawmakers created the LOFT entity during the 2019 legislative session, as the effort was a priority for Gov. Kevin Stitt and both chambers, despite lengthy negotiations over the committee’s makeup and requirements. As part of the final agreement, lawmakers repealed and disbanded the Agency Performance and Accountability Commission, which had been created in 2018 and developed a list of roughly five dozen “proposals” for state agencies.

Other members of the committee include:

(Correction: This story was updated at 10:10 a.m. Wednesday, July 31, to correct the hometown of Sen. Chuck Hall.)