OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — An Oklahoma agency's appropriation of $2 million in public funds to a private, non-profit livestock show is an inappropriate use of taxpayer money and is unconstitutional, a state lawmaker said Tuesday.
Rep. Mike Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City, is one of two state lawmakers who are suing the state Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry to stop it from giving state funds to the Oklahoma Youth Expo livestock show.
Reynolds and Rep. Mike Ritze, R-Broken Arrow, have asked for a temporary injunction to stop the transfer until an Oklahoma County judge rules on whether it is legal. A hearing on the request is scheduled for Oct. 3 before District Judge Barbara Swinton.
But Agriculture Secretary Jim Reese said Tuesday the money has already been appropriated.
"It is gone," said Reese, a former member of the private organization's board of directors. He said the appropriation was made last month in accordance with guidelines that authorize a public-private partnership between the state and private entities to help farmers and ranchers promote agriculture-related endeavors.
"We have transferred the funds. We've signed the contract," Reese said.
A spokesman for Gov. Mary Fallin, Alex Weintz, indicated the governor supports the Youth Expo appropriation.
"The Oklahoma Youth Expo provides educational and vocational training opportunities to young Oklahomans while promoting agriculture in the state," Weintz said in an email to The Associated Press. "The expo supports and compliments the mission of the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture; therefore, the Oklahoma Constitution allows the state to contract with that private entity."
But Reynolds said appropriations to the Youth Expo are the most blatant of many examples of state funds inappropriately given to private entities. He said the state has been giving tax dollars to the annual private youth livestock show in Oklahoma City for at least 10 years.
"Those guys might as well have written a check to the YMCA," he said. "I have certainly spoken against this type of behavior. It is a totally inappropriate use of taxpayer dollars."
Ritze maintained the state has no authority to transfer public funds to private organizations or individuals.
"We mean to put a stop to it and protect the taxpayers from these types of backroom deals," Ritze said in a statement.
The lawsuit, filed on Monday, states that a general appropriations bill adopted by the Legislature in May included appropriations to the Agriculture Department. But the measure does not include a specific $2 million appropriation to the Youth Expo, does not mention the expo by name and does not list an appropriation of any kind to the livestock show, the lawsuit states.
The petition states Reynolds wrote a letter to Reese in July asking him to "refrain from facilitating the unlawful 'pass-through' of state taxpayer money" to the Youth Expo. In a reply, Reese said the $2 million appropriation was part of the budget agreement between Fallin and legislative leaders.
"With the legislative intent clear and with statutory authority, I intend to contract with the Oklahoma Youth Expo to operate the world's largest junior livestock show," Reese said.
The Youth Expo's executive director, Tyler Norvell, did not return a call seeking comment Tuesday. The group's website states the expo is the largest youth event in the state and last year recorded record-breaking attendance with over 7,000 exhibitors.
The 10-day livestock show attracts exhibitors, educators and families from all of Oklahoma's 77 counties and has a $24 million economic impact on Oklahoma City, according to the website. The next event is scheduled for March 16-26.