School Land Commission reform may generate additional education funds

CapitolBeatOK Staff Report

Published: 30-Mar-2010

Monday (March 29), the Oklahoma state Senate gave final passage to the ‘School Land Commission Reform and Modernization Act” In addition to major institutional reforms, the new law will in the next few weeks lead to a significant infusion of new money into K-12 education, and some new support for higher education. Having previously passed the House of Representatives in final form, the bill now goes to Gov. Brad Henry, who is expected to sign it soon. 

The Commissioners of the Land Office, a non-appropriated agency controlling massive resources not subject to regular legislative appropriation, administers the school land trust funds for the production of income for the support and maintenance of the common schools. 

The commission has weathered a shocking scandal over the past year. Former employee Roger Q. Melson embezzled more than $1 million. Hunter, a Republican and veteran of the administration of Gov. Frank Keating, was hired to run the agency late late last year. He was hired by the land commission, dominated by state officials who are Democrats, to replace former state Auditor Clifton Scott, also a Democrat. This week’s legislation is in large measure the result of Hunter’s first round of work at the agency.

Hunter told CapitolBeatOK the legislation gives him an “excellent play book” to move beyond the scandal of recent years.

The School Land Trust is one of the most powerful concentrations of government resources in Oklahoma. Its portfolio includes a $1 billion investment fund and 2 million acres in surface and mineral assets. Last year some $82 million in resources flowed from the trust into common schools and higher education, an amount that will be enhanced before the close of this legislative session, Hunter indicated.

In an interview with Capitol reporters as the measure moved toward final approval, Land Commission Secretary Mike Hunter thanked legislators in both chambers and on both sides of the aisle for their work on the measure. Hunter singled out President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee, House Speaker Chris Benge, House Minority Leader Danny Morgan and Senate Minority Leader Charlie Laster for shepherding the bill through the process. 

Hunger said the bill “is just a beginning. I look forward to a continued strong working relationship with the Legislature and the Land Trust in Oklahoma common and higher education to advance our goal of making this agency the most effective and efficient state land office in the country.”

Legislative leaders say the measure puts in place a modern management infrastructure, improves accounting practices to incorporate recent audit recommendations, and updates or repeals obsolete statutes and rules. Analysts believe the Melson scandal was a direct result of outdated institutional practices and accounting systems which led to the opportunities for mismanagement. 

Commenting on the measure’s passage, House Speaker Chris Benge said cooperation with the current land office leadership allowed legislators to expedite the new law: “We are on track to restoring public confidence in this agency, and I believe this legislation will further that cause.”

On a statement sent to CapitolBeatOK, state Rep. Gus Blackwell of Goodwell, a Republican, a said, “This bill will ensure that the monies generated by the [land trust] will go where they are intended – to Oklahoma school children.”  Blackwell’s sprawling district in northwest Oklahoma includes more than half of the state’s school land. 

In his discussion of the measure with CapitolBeatOK and other reporters, Hunter thanked commissioners Brad Henry, Jari Askins, Steve Burrage, Sandy Garrett and Drew Edmondson for their advocacy of the new law. Attorney Agriculture Secretary Terry Peace is also a member of the schools land commission.