Hiett facing major test in college bond fuss

Saturday, February 26th 2005, 3:30 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ A popular $500 million college bond issue represents the first major legislative test for new House Speaker Todd Hiett.

Hiett, the first Republican speaker in eight decades, is asserting himself in offering an alternative to the bond proposal outlined before the session by Democratic Gov. Brad Henry and higher education officials.

The Henry bond package passed the Senate last week on a 47-0 vote, with all 22 Senate Republicans voting for it.

With higher education institutions in 36 communities standing to benefit from the bond issue, it has support throughout the state.

College officials say the money is badly needed for such wide ranging needs as repairing leaky roofs and expanding research facilities.

Henry has said it will be an economic boon for local economies and the state as a whole, creating thousands of construction jobs.

He also has warned that delaying approval could cost the state millions of dollars in construction costs due to inflation and bond underwriting costs due to rising interest rates.

Essentially, Hiett is asking college presidents to go back to the drawing board and lop off $82 million in projects to make way for two of his proposals.

One would create a $50 million endowment fund that colleges could tap into for future capital needs. Another Hiett proposal would transfer $38 million from the bond plan to the Petroleum Storage Tank Cleanup Fund.

Hiett also wants to allow the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University to issue their own bonds in the future without the need for legislative approval.

The House plan was put together largely by House budget chief Tom Daxon, who often clashed with Democratic leaders as top financial aide to former Republican Gov. Frank Keating.

The plan, outlined late last week, met with immediate opposition.

Senate President Pro Tem Cal Hobson, D-Lexington, said he would consider the Hiett proposals separately, but repeated his position that the list of projects in the Senate bill is nonnegotiable.

``Reopening that process could very likely start an avalanche of me-too politics that will bury the issue completely,'' Hobson said.

Southeastern President Glen Johnson said it took several months to develop objective criteria and settle on a list representing the ``top academic priority needs'' of each college and university.

``It would involve getting all the presidents together, looking at all the factors. It would be starting from ground zero. It would be difficult,'' Johnson said.

``I don't think there is any padding in the list,'' he said.

As president of the College Presidents Association, Johnson, former House speaker, was instrumental in development of the criteria used to make up the bond list.

An early version of the bond plan was floated near the end of the 2004 session but leaders decided it was too late to act upon.

Henry, Hobson and House Democratic leaders announced late last May that passing the bond plan would be the top higher education priority for the upcoming session.

Hiett was not a party to that agreement, however. The 37-year-old dairy farmer from Kellyville became speaker after Republicans picked up enough seats to take control of the House for the first time since the 1921-22 session.

Some concerns have been raised about the constitutionality of a couple of the Hiett proposals.

Robert Thompson, Senate attorney, said transferring money to the Petroleum Storage Tank Fund could be tricky since the bonds are being supported by lottery money, which is earmarked to go to education under the constitutional amendment adopted by voters last November.

Thompson said ``there also could be a potential problem'' with the plan to give OU and OSU the authority to issue their own bonds without legislative oversight, but ``it all depends on how it is drafted. The devil is in the details.''

Hiett on Friday defended his plan as a ``forward thinking'' and ``businesslike'' approach for meeting higher education's capital needs.

He faulted the stand by Hobson, saying: ``If they are in fact serious about his proposal not being negotiable, then we simply need to move on to workers' comp reform and lawsuit reform and not waste any more of the lawmakers' time.''

The Hiett proposal has yet to be placed in bill form. It is scheduled for consideration Wednesday in the House Revenue and Taxation Committee.