Oklahoma Turnpike Authority heads to court over governance law

The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority, which is undertaking a $5 billion, bond-financed expansion project, will challenge the constitutionality of a 2023 state law that altered its governance structure. 

The OTA board voted Tuesday to seek judicial review of the law, which stripped the governor of his sole ability to appoint the six-member board, giving two appointments each to the governor, House speaker, and Senate president pro tempore. The law also reduced board terms to six years from eight and prohibited members from voting on any issue in which they have a direct financial interest. 

It took effect Nov. 1, after the Republican-controlled legislature overrode Gov. Kevin Stitt’s veto of House Bill 2263.

“I believe one person who could have singular control over the OTA board decisions could ultimately be problematic for our state now and in the future,” Oklahoma State Rep. Danny Sterling, the bill’s sponsor, said.

Oklahoma Legislature

OTA spokeswoman Lisa Shearer-Salim said the board is concerned about whether allowing the legislature to make the majority of the appointments violates the state constitution’s separation of powers.

She added, OTA will file a lawsuit in Oklahoma County District Court against Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat and House Speaker Charles McCall.

 In his veto message, Stitt, a Republican, said the legislation 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.”

Last year’s legislative session featured a barrage  of bills aimed at reforming OTA in the wake of the controversial 15-year ACCESS (Advancing and Connecting Communities and Economies Safely Statewide) Oklahoma program. The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled in OTA’s favor in two lawsuits brought by property owners in the path of new toll roads. In August, justices validated an initial $500 million of revenue bonds the agency subsequently sold in October

HB 2263 was the only turnpike reform legislation to make it to the finish line last year.

Republican State Rep. Danny Sterling, the bill’s sponsor, said Tuesday it was aimed at preventing whoever is governor from controlling turnpike projects and potentially benefiting financially from them. 

“I am not directing this in reference to the current governor and I am definitely not saying he would be involved in any unscrupulous business practices because of his control of the board members selection process,” he said in an email. “Again, I believe one person who could have singular control over the OTA board decisions could ultimately be problematic for our state now and in the future.”

Moody’s Investors Service, which rated the $500 million of bonds Aa3, mentioned the law in a rating report, noting that while the governor previously had the ability to remove any board member at any time for any reason, members now can only be dismissed for cause.