Controversial bill diminishing Oklahoma State Auditor’s authority stalled in House committee

Oklahoma Politics

OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – Controversial legislation with alleged ties to Epic Charter School’s co-founder was stalled in committee Wednesday. Senate Bill 895 would allow state agencies to choose who would conduct their audits rather than that responsibility falling on the state’s elected auditor.

The bill already passed through the State Senate by a vote of 36 to 9, but it was met with scrutiny in the House Budget and Appropriations Committee.

Although the bill would likely seriously diminish the state auditor’s authority, she was not allowed to defend the issues the bill sought to address in committee Wednesday.

Authored by Sen. Paul Rosino and Rep. Chris Kannady, Kannady explained that the law would address drastically rising costs of state agency audits.

Kannady said a 2018 audit of the Department of Human Services cost $347,000, then a 2020 audit of the agency cost $670,000. Additionally, a 2018 audit of the Oklahoma Health Care Authority cost $260,000, while a 2019 audit of the agency cost $670,000.

“It allows there to be a competitive bid for auditing purposes that the state auditor can bid on,” Kannady said.

But he also admitted that he never sought out State Auditor Cindy Byrd for clarity on why the costs were increasing.

Byrd was present at the hearing, and several House committee members requested that she be allowed to speak to explain her reasoning.

The committee chair said it would be up to Kannady to let her speak, and he flatly refused, citing procedure.

“If someone wants to speak on behalf of a bill, you allow it, but you don’t have a debate with people outside of our committee in our committee structure,” Kannady said. “So, there is nothing to stop the state auditor’s office or anybody else to provide information if they want to dispute any of the issues here, but they haven’t been so far, and this is not the first time the issues have been brought before a public body.”

“I’m just looking for honest information. I’m not trying to be for or against it. I just want better, pragmatic understanding of why these dramatic increases are occurring, and again I’ll say that I think that information absent a political bent is material to our ability to make a decision in this committee,” said Rep. Meloyde Blancett, the second to make the request.

After the hearing, Byrd told News 4 that the audits are paid for with federal grants. She explained that the costs increase because federal expenditures for federal programs increased. In 2019, they were $7 billion and in 2020 they shot up to $10 billion.

Epic Charter Schools
Epic Charter Schools

Byrd also said that if a state agency does not comply with federal requirements, the federal government requires the state auditor to continue adding the same program every year in addition to regular work, which also adds to increased costs.

“These are justified, easily explainable and I have that information ready at my fingertips if someone would have asked me for that,” Byrd said.

The bill came under harsh criticism after Tulsa World tied some of its language to an Epic Charter School co-founder’s words just months after the state auditor released a scathing investigation of the school, alleging serious mismanagement of funds and efforts to conceal how Oklahoma tax-payer dollars were spent.

Kannady introduced an amendment to the bill he said Tulsa World quoted, but said that even without the amendment, the bill had nothing to do with Epic because it only applied to state agencies.

Kannady declined to be interviewed for this story after the bill failed to pass through committee by a vote of 30 to 4.

“It would undermine the transparency of taxpayer dollars by allowing agencies to go outside of the government to get audits from essentially private auditors who they can hand pick themselves,” said committee member and House Minority Leader Rep. Emily Virgin.

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