The Oklahoma Supreme Court upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit challenging a turnpike extension plan while it weighs whether initial bonds to finance the $5 billion, 15-year project are valid.
In an opinion Tuesday, the high court left intact a December decision by a Cleveland County District Court judge granting the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority’s motion to dismiss on jurisdictional grounds the case brought by property owners in the path of the ACCESS (Advancing and Connecting Communities and Economies Safely Statewide) Oklahoma plan.
But plaintiffs’ claims that OTA lacks authorization to build and bond finance the South Extension, East-West Connector, and Tri-City Connector projects continue to be before the Supreme Court as it determines whether $500 million of revenue bonds the agency would issue to jumpstart funding for the project are valid.
“Really all the Supreme Court is saying is that since it’s going to decide the fate of the new turnpikes anyway, it’s going to decide them in the bond validation case,” Robert Norman, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, said in a statement.
In concurring with the high court’s unanimous opinion, Vice-Chief Justice Dustin P. Rowe stressed “our holding in this matter has no bearing on the outcome of the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority’s request to validate the issuance of the bond package to finance the ACCESS Oklahoma projects currently pending before us.”
OTA, which asked the high court in August to validate the bonds, said it agrees with the Supreme Court’s decision.
“We understand this opinion does not address nor resolve the (bond) validation proceeding,” it said in a statement. “As such, the timing of the OTA’s ability to issue revenue bonds in the public financial markets remains unclear and further ACCESS Oklahoma-related activities continue to be on pause.”
Last month, OTA halted construction work related to the project over concerns about its access to the municipal bond market in the wake of ongoing litigation and an investigative audit of the agency ordered by the state attorney general.
Meanwhile, Gov. Kevin Stitt vetoed the only OTA-related reform legislation to make it to his desk.
The bill, which was passed with veto-proof majorities in both chambers, would strip the governor of his sole ability to appoint the six-member OTA board of directors, giving two appointments each to the governor, House speaker, and Senate president pro tempore. It also would reduce new board members’ terms to six years from eight years, allow for a member’s removal for cause, and prohibit members from voting on any issue in which they have a direct financial interest.
In his May 19 veto message, Stitt said the bill would “codify legislative superiority and control over the operation of an executive branch agency and would enable the legislature to exercise unconstitutionally coercive influence over the executive department.”
He added it would also subject the OTA’s makeup and decisions to “legitimate legal challenges.”