Oklahoma lawmakers overrode the veto of a bill aimed at reforming the governance structure of the state’s turnpike authority, which is awaiting a ruling on the validity of bonds to begin funding a $5 billion extension project.
Ahead of Friday’s end of the legislative session, the override of Gov. Kevin Stitt’s May 19 veto passed in votes of 78-19 in the House and 39-5 in the Senate.
Republican State Rep. Danny Sterling, the bill’s sponsor, called the move “a great victory” for Oklahoma residents “in that they can hopefully have a more equitable legislative representation on the board” and lead to more transparency of OTA actions moving forward.
OTA came under legislative scrutiny last year when its ACCESS (Advancing and Connecting Communities and Economies Safely Statewide) Oklahoma project took property owners in its path by surprise, leading to a flurry of reform bills and litigation by property owners trying to block the plan.
House Bill 2263 strips 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, when it takes effect Nov. 1. It will also 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.
In a statement, OTA said current board members will serve out their existing terms, while future appointments will be made under the new structure.
“The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority is here to support the people of Oklahoma and that is
done, in large part, through their elected officials, including lawmakers and the governor, and the laws they enact,” the statement said.
Provisions in the bill help create “a balanced environment where critical and transparent discussions can occur in the quest to develop the best possible transportation solutions for the citizens of Oklahoma,” according to Amy Cerato, a board member of Oklahomans for Responsible Transportation, a group that has been fighting aspects of the ACCESS project.
In his veto message, Stitt said the bill would “codify legislative superiority and control over the operation of an executive branch agency and would enable the legislature to exercise unconstitutionally coercive influence over the executive department.” He added it would also subject the OTA’s makeup and decisions to “legitimate legal challenges.”
The Oklahoma Supreme Court has yet to rule on the validity of an initial $500 million of revenue bonds OTA would issue for the project. Last month, OTA halted construction work related to the project over concerns about its access to the municipal bond market in the wake of ongoing litigation and an investigative audit of the agency ordered by the state attorney general.