Hot Water: H.B. 3061 advances to full Senate after 11-7 panel vote

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published: 02-Apr-2010

Oklahoma’s state Senate Appropriations Committee finished its work late Wednesday, processing dozens of bills that originated in the state House.

During a long day of deliberations, with most proposals gaining approval at break-neck speed, among the handful of measures that gathered serious scrutiny and some degree of opposition was House Bill 3393. Literally the final proposal considered, that bill was twice amended, with a third proposed change failing only 11-10 (on a party line vote)

In the end, however, the bill from Rep. Jason Nelson of Oklahoma City and Sen. Patrick Anderson of Enid emerged rather comfortably from the panel, after a 17-4 favorable vote.

Another moment of true controversy and a much closer committee vote came in consideration of House Bill 3061, sponsored by state Rep. Dale DeWitt of Braman, a Republican. In the upper chamber the sponsor, and therefore point man for the measure in the Senate Appropriations deliberations, has been Sen. Ron Justice of Chickasha, also a Republican. The bill was closely scrutinized by foes of proposed sales of Oklahoma water.

If enacted as presently worded, the bill would create a permanent Water Infrastructure Revolving Account. However, members of the committee who are both Democrats and primarily from rural Oklahoma believe the bill could, after conference committee work is completed, start the process of selling Oklahoma water across state lines.

At one point during discussion of H.B. 3061, one Democrat pressed Sen. Justice to give his personal assurance the measure would not be broadened to allow sale of water to other states. Justice said “as far as I know” such a development was not in the works.

Sen. Susan Paddack of Ada advanced the same line of argumentation, saying she wondered if “anything else is going on” as legislative deadlines for bill processing loom. Sen Kenneth Corn of Poteau posed his question about the bill this way: “Is that [broader water sales] someone else’s intent?” Some Democrats said they suspected the measure would be part of a “Sardis Lake payoff.”

(At the state revenue briefing for reporters in March, CapitolBeatOK asked state Treasurer Scott Meacham about a multi-million dollar legal judgment the state must pay to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The treasurer said,  “We’re not prepared to talk about that yet. We owe a payment of $5 million on July 1. In terms of how we’re going to pay that, we don’t know yet.” Meacham said, “That is a state debt, a state obligation, and we’re just getting into the issue of how that will be paid.”)

Senator Jim Wilson was perhaps the most pointed in his criticisms of H.B. 3061. In closing comments moments before Wednesday’s vote, the Tahlequah Democrat characterized Justice’s measure as “the camel’s nose under the tent” for broader sale of Oklahoma water.

Voting for H.B. 3061 were Brian Bingman of Sapulpa, Brian Crain of Tulsa, Johnnie Crutchfield of Ardmore, John Ford of Bartlesville, James Halligan of Stillwater, Justice, Mike Reynolds of Oklahoma City, Gary Stanislawski of Tulsa, Anthony Sykes of Moore, David Myers of Ponca City, and Mike Johnson of Kingfisher, chairman of the panel.

Crutchfield was the only Democrat voting for the measure. But when Republican Halligan voted, he said it was, “Yes, for now.”

Every vote against H.B. 3061 came from Democrats: Randy Bass of Lawton, Corn, Jay Paul Gumm of Durant, Debbe Leftwich of Oklahoma City, Richard Lerblance of Hartshorne, Paddock and Wilson.

After the 11-7 vote, the measure advanced to the full Senate for consideration.