House Leaders Caught Spending While Oklahoma Agencies Forced To Cut Budgets
The Capitol Building in Oklahoma City.
Former Speaker of the House Chris Benge.
Speaker of the House Kris Steele.
Amy Lester, Oklahoma Impact Team
OKLAHOMA CITY -- While state agencies were making major budget cuts, leaders in the House of Representatives were still spending money. They relied on the House's carryover funds to spend millions more than was appropriated.
The Oklahoma Impact Team took a look at where that money went, over the past two years. Eighty-eight percent was for salaries but, what about the rest?
"It seems like excessive spending across the board," said State Representative Joe Dorman, Democratic Representative from Rush Springs.
Here are a few things that stuck out:
•$156,544 went to specialized lawyers and an outside auditor, even though the House has nine lawyers on staff and the state has its own auditors.
•$122,981 went to office supplies, maintenance, furniture, moving expenses and house upkeep.
•$95,687 to print House Journals for archives. The journals detail what goes on daily during session and are also available electronically online.
•$13,916 on three storage spaces for historic furniture and documents, that aren't even full.
Dorman questions the expenditures but, he had no control over them since he's in the minority party. The person ultimately in charge was former Speaker of the House Chris Benge.
After Benge did not return phone calls or emails, the Oklahoma Impact team decided to go to his office. He refused to go on camera but, agreed later, to talk on the phone.
"Certainly as a former leader, I realize, that there's always examination of my service and that's going to be subject to criticism and I understand that. I get that," said former Speaker Chris Benge.
Benge defends his decision to use millions of carryover funds, instead of furloughing employees or offering early retirement, like the Senate did last session. Benge did freeze out of state travel but, his cuts did not match the 20 percent reduction in appropriations. He admits he did not scrutinize all spending, especially when it came to what he calls minor purchases.
"I think our focus was so much on just trying to get a handle on kind of the free fall we were in revenue wise that maybe, the attention just wasn't there at the time on such a macro level," said Benge.
The Oklahoma Impact team is also took some of the findings to the new Speaker of the House Kris Steele. It appears he is looking at expenses much more closely.
"I can tell you that everything is on the table, we are reviewing all of our expenditures," said Steele.
Steele wants to make sure spending is justified and insists, he thinks of the House's money as the people's money.
Steele already cut 28 positions to save $1.6 million and he assured that he'll look at some of the expenses found. He'll find out if the journals can be stored electronically instead of printing them, if there's a way to consolidate or eliminate storage, if he can rely on state employees as opposed to outside lawyers or auditors, and he's trying to decide if water and coffee are a good use of money.
"I take this responsibility very seriously and we are going to be extra careful to make good decisions with the money that has been entrusted to this body to serve the state of Oklahoma," said Steele.
The Oklahoma Impact team will keep watching to make sure Speaker Steele keeps his promises and cuts back on spending.
Join Oklahoma Impact's Amy Lester in a live web chat Friday at noon on NewsOn6.com
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