Woodward, Okla. —
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A directive by the Oklahoma Legislature to divert about $7.9 million from a program that provides free college tuition to thousands of students from low-income families was unconstitutional, the Oklahoma Attorney General's Office said in an opinion Thursday.
The opinion, signed by Attorney General Scott Pruitt and Solicitor General Patrick Wyrick, responded to House Democratic Leader Scott Inman of Del City, who objected to taking the money from the program called the Oklahoma Higher Learning Access Program.
Legal opinions by the Attorney General's Office carry the force of law until altered or struck down by a court.
OHLAP provides free college tuition to Oklahoma students whose family income is $50,000 or less and maintain a certain high-school grade point average. OHLAP serves about 19,000 students at an annual cost of about $60 million.
Last week, Inman questioned whether the Legislature has the authority to order the Board of Equalization, which determines the amount of revenue needed to meet the program's scholarship obligations, to reduce the funding.
The Attorney General's opinion says it was unconstitutional for the Legislature to make a demand of the board to reduce OHLAP's funding in a general appropriations bill.
"The Legislature lacks the authority to direct the state Board of Equalization how to calculate the amount to be certified as available for appropriations," the opinion also says.
Inman said he believes the opinion gives the board the authority to ignore the Legislature's directive, which was part of the $7.1 billion general appropriations bill that funds most state government functions during the fiscal year beginning July 1.
A spokeswoman for the Attorney General's Office, Diane Clay, said the office had already begun an inquiry into the funds transfer when Inman requested the formal opinion. Clay said representatives of the Regents for Higher Education, which administers the OHLAP program, expressed their own concerns a week earlier.