- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 14, 2014

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Gov. Mary Fallin on Wednesday signed into law a $13 million supplemental appropriations bill to help Oklahoma’s prison system pay its bills.

Fallin signed the measure just one day after it received final approval in a 68-23 vote in the state House. The Senate passed the bill on May 6 in a 41-0 vote. Both chambers approved an emergency clause allowing the measure to immediately go into effect after being signed.

The measure appropriates $13 million to the Department of Corrections to help it pay its bills during the fiscal year that ends June 30. The measure’s House author, Rep. Scott Martin, R-Norman, has said the agency is constitutionally required to pay its current bills before the end of the fiscal year.

Money for the supplemental appropriation will come from surplus general revenue funds from the previous fiscal year. The measure also gives the director of the Department of Corrections, Robert Patton, more authority to tap an internal agency revolving account to meet the agency’s obligations.

Martin has said the agency, whose budget this year totals $463 million, is facing a $27 million shortfall that the supplemental appropriation and money from the revolving fund will close. He said the department will use the money to pay for private prison beds, a backup of inmates in county jails and inmate medical services.

Opponents of the bill have warned that it is likely to face a legal challenge. During debate on the measure in the House, Rep. Mike Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City, said he believes the measure is unconstitutional because the Oklahoma Constitution requires that general revenue surpluses be used to pay off bonded indebtedness.

Fallin also signed a separate measure that authorizes citizens who sue public bodies and their officials for alleged violations of the Open Meetings Act to recover attorney fees if the lawsuit is successful. The Open Meetings Act requires public bodies to post notice of meetings and hold votes in public.

An Oklahoma appeals court last year established for the first time the ability of citizens to sue in court to enforce the provisions of the Open Meetings Act. Previously, enforcement had been left solely to district attorneys, who are often busy prosecuting crimes that deal directly with public safety.

“The Open Meetings Act is critically important to maintaining a transparent and accountable government, but the No. 1 complaint about it has been the inability to enforce it,” said the measure’s author, Sen. David Holt, R-Bethany. “This legislation addresses that enforcement problem.”

The same measure also authorizes a public body to seek attorney fees if it successfully defends itself against the lawsuit and a judge rules that the suit was clearly frivolous.

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Online:

Senate Bill 2126: http://bit.ly/1l9YjZt

Senate Bill 1497: http://bit.ly/1stOFUq