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Oklahoma Corporation Commission considers how tight budget year might impact upgrade efforts


Current revenue projections for Oklahoma’s upcoming state budget and Gov. Kevin Stitt’s efforts to get state agencies that report to him to limit their requests for the coming fiscal year have caught the attention of elected members of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission.

During a regular business meeting commissioners held earlier this month with Tim Rhodes, the agency’s administration director, discussion turned to whether the agency will be able to obtain additional dollars in the coming fiscal year to continue a years-long project to create an online, one-click way to retrieve agencywide data and information about companies and operations it regulates.

In Fiscal 2020, Oklahoma’s Legislature approved a budget that gave the agency an extra $5.3 million to help advance those efforts.

The upgrades, involving both hardware and software, aim to both make it easier for regulated companies to conduct business with the commission and to make information about its regulatory activities more available to the public through its website.

With the exception of the current fiscal year, the commission has been forced to use money from existing appropriations to support efforts to make past upgrades to its systems.

During the meeting, commissioners asked whether they would have to turn to that strategy again, because Stitt has warned the chairman of elected commissioners and the agency’s administrative leader to expect a rigorous review of its fiscal 2021 budget request.

Commissioner Dana Murphy said a quote Stitt made recently related to one-time appropriations the Legislature makes to state agencies for special projects caught her attention.

Stitt, she told other commissioners, expects agencies to back those out of budget requests for the coming fiscal year to save the state money.

Commission Chairman Todd Hiett noted that Stitt

reiterated that position in comments he made at the start of a meeting his budget secretary and other staff held with agency department heads earlier this month on the budget planning process.

“It comes as no surprise,” Hiett said. “It has been a longtime practice advocated for by governors and lawmakers throughout the years to go to what we used to be called zero-based budgeting, where you would start out with your base appropriation, minus one-times.

“But I think, based on my conversation with Mr. Rhodes, that we are positioned well to continue” the ongoing upgrade project, he continued.

“It will be incumbent on us to show we have been good stewards of the $5.3 million we got this year, and will continue that progress we are making in the future.”

Murphy said she hoped the agency would be able to continue making progress on the upgrades, even if the agency isn’t able to secure additional dollars to continue the project in the upcoming fiscal year.

“It kind of goes to my dad’s philosophy, ‘Prepare for the worst, hope for the best,’” Murphy said. “I just wanted to make sure … it was out there. I just want to make sure we are prepared if we don’t get it.”

Sarah Terry-Cobo, a spokeswoman for the agency, previously has said the upgrade project is divided into four phases.

The first establishes a sole source of record for all Corporation Commission revenue transactions, and work to implement those upgrades is underway with an expected completion date in July.

The second phase aims to create a new online portal for the agency’s court clerk operations, and the extra money the agency received for Fiscal 2020 got work on this started early.

The third phase, which the extra money helped to start early planning for, seeks to upgrade databases that hold the agency’s oil and gas conservation division’s information, integrating it with an upgraded Risk-Based Data Management System application that was created by the Ground Water Protection Council.

A fourth phase will upgrade data systems the agency uses to regulate the intrastate freight and passenger carriers.

According to data provided by state officials, the Legislature appropriated about $17.6 million to the commission for Fiscal Year 2020, which started July 1.

The appropriation was about $6.95 million more than the $10.6 million it received the previous year.

Of the remaining money not designated to system upgrades, $1 million was used to boost operational funding for the commission’s Ports of Entry and Weigh Stations, while the remainder was used to fund the commission’s portion of legislatively mandated pay raises for state workers.

The agency’s director of finance, Holly George, also has met with the governor's staff about the budgeting process and noted Stitt's people have indicated they are impressed with work the commission already does as part of its budget preparations, including providing data on dollars spent by its various divisions the previous two years, projections on what they need for the coming fiscal year, and the level of detail each division staff uses to prepare that information.

“We are going above and beyond what they are even asked of us in the meeting,” George said.

Hiett agreed, adding praise for the agency’s administration and its division staffs for the hard work they do to compile, organize and disseminate the data to elected commissioners and other appropriate parties.

“We, as leaders of the commission, are spoiled by a very good team that provides very good information,” Hiett said.

Jack Money

Jack Money has worked for The Oklahoman for more than 20 years. During that time, he has worked for the paper’s city, state, metro and business news desks, including serving for a while as an assistant city editor. Money has won state and regional... Read more ›