(CN) - An Oklahoma official has improperly earmarked $2 million for an annual event where kids showcase farm animals, two Republican lawmakers say in court.
After the Oklahoma Legislature approved the general appropriations bill SB 1975 in May, Agriculture Department Commissioner Jim Reese allegedly announced that he would give $2 million of public funds to the nonprofit Oklahoma Youth Expo.
Reese claimed that the funds were "'appropriated' in SB 1975 for the ODA," according to the complaint in Oklahoma County.
Reps. Mike Reynolds and Mike Ritze who filed the suit describe the Youth Expo as "an annual exposition of farm animals by certain youth groups in Oklahoma."
They say Reese sits on the expo's board of directors, but the group's website makes no mention of him on its online roster.
Reynolds says he sent Reese a letter in July asking him to "refrain from facilitating the unlawful 'pass-through' of state taxpayer money" to the expo.
According to the complaint, "Commissioner Reese replied and - despite the absence of an express appropriation in SB 1975 for the Youth Expo - stated, in part, the following:
"Thank you for your letter concerning the appropriation to the Oklahoma Youth Expo. The appropriation to the Department of Agriculture was increased 2 million dollars specifically for the purpose of funding the Oklahoma Youth Expo. ... I have confirmed with the governor, the House speaker, the Senate pro tem, the House and Senate Appropriation chairs and the Natural Resources Subcommittee chairs that the 2 million dollars was part of the budget agreement and was included in SB-1975."
Reese further stated in his letter: "With the legislative intent clear and with statutory authority, I intend to contract with the Oklahoma Youth Expo to operate the world's largest junior livestock show," according to the complaint.
Reynolds and Ritze say Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin also favor the gift, as her spokesman was quoted in the Tulsa World newspaper on July 18 stating that "the governor would honor the budget deal to support the youth expo."
Rep. Earl Sears, chairman of the House Appropriations and Budget Committee, revealed in a July 22 Tulsa World article where officials found the $2 million for the expo, according to the complaint.
"Sears recalled that during budget talks he said there wasn't enough money in the state budget for the expo funding," the lawmakers say. "At that point, representatives of the governor volunteered $1 million from the secretary of state's fund and another $1 million from the state's unclaimed property fund."
Based on these reports, Reynolds and Ritze say: "Certain members of the Legislature and the state's executive branch collaborated with each other, and with persons connected with the Youth Expo, and reached an informal agreement among themselves to indirectly provide $2,000,000 of public monies to the Youth Expo from appropriations made in SB 1975."
They add: "The 'agreement reached between certain members of the Legislature and Executive branch - ultimately arranging for the ODA to divert $2,000,000 of public funds to the Youth Expo - was the result of 'phone marking.'
"The term 'phone marking' describes a tactic used by legislators and others to coax government agency heads to certain projects or risk budget cuts to their agency."
Reynolds and Ritze say this diversion of funds violates state law governing appropriations, which states "every such law making a new appropriation, or continuing or reviving an appropriation, shall distinctly specify the sum appropriated and the object to which it is applied."
They seek declarations "that SB 1975 contains no appropriation for the Youth Expo and that no appropriation made in SB 1975 may be used to indirectly fund the Youth Expo."
"A diversion of any money to the Youth Expo from the general appropriations made in SB 1975 would constitute a reallocation and misappropriation of state revenue and be unconstitutional and void," according to the complaint.
The lawmakers also want an injunction to stop the money transfer.
Oklahoma, Reese, three members of the agriculture board, interim state finance director Carol McFarland, state Treasurer Ken Miller and Secretary Of State Glenn Coffee are named as defendants.
Ritze and Reynolds are represented by Andrew Karim of Oklahoma City.
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