OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma legislators have been raising thousands of dollars from lobbyists at lavish fundraisers during a special session limping into its eighth week, yet they’ve failed to make much progress toward plugging a $215 million hole in the state budget.
The Associated Press obtained invitations to a dozen scheduled fundraisers held over the past few weeks for some of the Legislature’s top Republican leaders, including the powerful chairs of the appropriations committees in the House and Senate.
During the regular session that ended in May, members of the Legislature could have faced fines and up to a year in jail for accepting contributions from lobbyists or the companies that employ them. But legislators intentionally left a loophole in the 2008 law establishing the misdemeanor by deciding it shouldn’t apply to special sessions like the current one.
With no end in sight to the session, state House and Senate members are taking full advantage of the loophole by raising money for elections a year away.
Some lawmakers who hosted fundraisers defended the practice and said the events were scheduled before they knew about a special session, but one state official says accepting the cash can pose a conflict of interest.
“There’s no way I was going to cancel something that had been on the calendar for months,” said Rep. Chris Kannady, an Oklahoma City Republican who hosted an Oct. 17 fundraiser with U.S. Rep. Tom Cole with suggested contributions of $100 to $1,000.
A second fundraiser with Kannady and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Kevin Wallace at the Summit Club in Tulsa atop the Bank of America Tower was canceled, Kannady said.
Several lawmakers with scheduled fundraisers, including Kannady, said their contributions from lobbyists don’t influence how they vote on bills.
“It doesn’t affect me. I guess the optics of it could be construed as negative, but I think it depends on the legislator,” said Rep. Scott Fetgatter, R-Okmulgee, who ended up canceling his scheduled fundraiser at a barbecue restaurant in Oklahoma City because of a scheduled vote on the House floor. “I don’t allow campaign contributions to affect my decision making based on what’s best for my district.”
Because of the loophole, there are no legal ramifications for lawmakers who take campaign cash from lobbyists during the special session even amid votes on nearly $500 million in proposed tax increases on tobacco, beer, fuel and energy production. But state Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones said he thinks there should be.
“For the same reason that it’s prohibited during session, which is that people can use undue influence,” said Jones, one of several Republicans seeking the governor’s office in 2018. “If they can raise them money and give them campaign checks, obviously that could impact them on how they could vote.”
Only two of the dozen scheduled fundraisers were held during the previous campaign finance reporting cycle, so it’s too early to determine exactly how much money was raised.
Republican state Reps. Greg Babinec and Rhonda Baker each reported raising more than $1,000 from lobbyists, energy executives and political action committees around the time of a Sept. 26 fundraiser for both representatives.
Former state Sen. Glenn Coffee, who helped write the law in 2008 that prevents contributions from lobbyists during the regular session, said it was intentionally drafted not to prohibit fundraising during a special session.
“I think the reasoning was, what if the special session gets called and you’re right in the middle of a campaign?” Coffee said.
Jones, the state auditor, said most people wouldn’t understand the discrepancy in the law.
“The general public would think if you can’t during it during session, you can’t do it during special session,” Jones said.
Follow Sean Murphy at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy