Members of the Oklahoma Legislature voted Friday to override Gov. Kevin Stitt’s vetoes of two bills impacting the state’s “endowed chair” program. With their override votes, lawmakers ensured the state will borrow millions to fund matching grants that have paid salaries to college officials to teach classes in New Mexico, direct theatre performances in state prisons, and study classic films, among other things.
The Oklahoma State Regents’ Endowment Trust Fund is used to match private donations for endowed chair positions at state colleges.
HB 2749 places a cap of $671.2 million on state matching funds for the endowed-chair program, while House Bill 2750 doubles the amount of bonds the Oklahoma Capitol Improvement Authority can issue to fund the state match for endowed chairs. HB 2750 authorizes $314.4 million in bonds to cover the state match portion of the endowed chair program.
In his veto message for HB 2749, Stitt noted the state has provided roughly $500 million in matching funds for the endowed-chair program since its inception “with no input from the legislature or Governor as to what types of chairs and professorships would be matched.”
“Instead of simply placing a cap, the more fiscally responsible course would be to eliminate matching monies altogether,” Stitt wrote.
In his veto message for HB 2750, Stitt noted the state currently has $93.1 million in principal outstanding from prior bonds issued to fund endowed chair positions, and wrote that “requiring the state of Oklahoma to continue to match those private donations is unsustainable.”
During floor debate, Rep. Mike Sanders, R-Kingfisher, noted that lawmakers didn’t know what endowed chairs exist or what work those professors do.
“I didn’t see this when I was reviewing this last night,” Sanders said. “Is there a list?”
No direct answer was ever provided to Sanders’ question.
However, information obtained by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs shows that among the numerous professorial jobs funded by the state-matching program is the Oklahoma State University Vennerberg Professorship in Art. A university announcement regarding the position states that the professor holding that chair “will focus on work currently conducted at the new, multi-disciplinary Doel Reed Center for the Arts in Taos, N.M.”
A website for the New Mexico center states that among the services it offers are “Leisure Learning classes, designed by expert instructors for inquiring adults. You’ll explore the art, culture and recreational experiences that multicultural northern New Mexico has to offer.”
At Cameron University in Lawton, the state program has helped fund the Holmes, Morris and Newell Endowed Lectureship in Classic Films.
Another endowed position receiving state funding is the Mary L. Lemon Professor of Underrepresented Voices at Oklahoma State University. Among other things, Jodi Jinks, who currently holds that position, has created “theatre performances with incarcerated men in Oklahoma correctional facilities through her program ArtsAloud-OSU.”
At the University of Oklahoma, the program has helped fund the Farzaneh Family Professorship in Iranian Architecture & Culture.
Rep. Kyle Hilbert, a Bristow Republican who is vice-chair of the House Appropriation and Budget Committee, told lawmakers that HB 2749 accomplishes Stitt’s goal of eliminating state matching funds for the endowed chairs, saying, “That’s literally what this bill does.” He later clarified that statement to say the bill only eliminates the matching funds “moving forward.”
Later, under further questioning, he conceded lawmakers can quickly expand the program again.
“Is it feasible to say, though, with the cap being put in statute, will this body in the future be legislated or lobbied to perhaps increase the cap?” asked House Appropriations and Budget Chairman Kevin Wallace, R-Wellston.
“As with anything in statute, it’s always up to the Legislature,” Hilbert said. “That can be changed at any time.”
In response to questions, Hilbert said university regents determine what chairs are endowed, and that the governor appoints those regents.
However, the regents serve staggered terms of up to seven years. As a result, Stitt’s appointees do not constitute a majority of the entities with oversight of endowed-chair decisions.
Hilbert also later said, “Really, it’s the donors who are directing where the money goes.”
This year, the University of Oklahoma announced it had received private funding—which will be matched with taxpayer dollars—to create an endowed chair in “Native American spirituality and the environment” and place “the cultures of Native peoples and the sovereignty of Native Nations at the center of academic study across all three OU campuses.”
Lawmakers argued the state should honor promises to fund such positions.
“Wouldn’t you agree that it’s good government and good business for this body to honor the obligations that are already in place from those people who have donated by funding the match?” asked Rep. Andy Fugate, D-Oklahoma City, during questions on the bond-financed debt authorized for endowed chairs by HB 2750.
“That’s what this bill does,” responded Rep. Mark McBride, R-Moore.
Lawmakers in the Senate did not publicly defend the bills, choosing to instead override the governor’s vetoes of the endowed-chair legislation without questions, discussion, or debate.