UCSO merger bill approved by House, criticized for rushed legislative process

Michael D. Smith
The Daily Ardmoreite

The effort to transform Ardmore’s campus for higher education into an extension of Murray State College received its first legislative approval on Monday and is now in the state senate. While the emergency bill faced little opposition from representatives, an Ardmore native serving in the chamber voted against it for two major reasons. 

“So there are a lot of reasons, from the rules that we have to the fact that there’s other pressing issues,” said Rep. Mauree Turner, D-OKC, on Tuesday.

Turner was joined by four other lawmakers – two Republicans and two fellow Democrats – in casting nay votes against a bill that would transfer the University Center of Southern Oklahoma to Murray State College. Turner said education access is an important issue in southern Oklahoma but criticized the bill’s hurried process through the Legislature. 

“It is very important. That’s why it passed, apparently,” Turner said. 

UCSO Board of Trustees in March voted to approve a proposal from MSC that would transfer all properties and finances of the Ardmore campus to the Tishomingo-based college. UCSO trustees have said that the move was due to years of declining enrollment and revenues, and that a merger would be necessary to prevent the center from defaulting on bond payments in the next fiscal year. 

For Turner, these considerations should have been considered well ahead of the current legislative session and that emergency rules for fast-tracking legislation should be reserved for issues more pressing to individuals in Oklahoma. 

“Renaming the center in Ardmore and switching over some of the finances and things like that for it is not how we fully help people,” Turner said. “If you’ve got the power to put a bill through at the last minute, it should be geared toward helping Oklahomans in a time where we are in dire need.” 

House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, said the emergency declaration in the bill allows it to go into effect immediately after being approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor. In order to get the merger approved by the legislature before the current session ends later this month.

"I just basically played the role as a facilitator on this piece of legislation. The language was completely put together and agreed upon by the two higher education institutions," McCall said on Tuesday.

"It was introduced late in session because the agreement had not been fully consummated between the two institutions, so we had to utilize a vehicle — an agreement between the house speaker and senate president pro tem — to introduce the bill late so it could get done."

UCSO trustees have said that the MSC merger proposal was the only viable way to keep the Ardmore campus doors open and would first require legislative approval. While the processes of considering options to rescue the center date back to at least November 2020, when representatives from UCSO and three partner institutions discussed options at a private retreat, public discussions did not begin in earnest until at least late February. 

For example, UCSO trustees voted on Jan. 14 to hire former trustee Andre Moore as a liaison between the center and its three partner institutions. At the time, Moore and trustees discussed how declining enrollment and revenue threatened the center’s future but did not indicate any mergers or legislative actions would be necessary. 

Moore at the time said his new part-time job as liaison was to better facilitate communication between the center and three partner institutions. Public discussion about Moore’s new role at the Jan. 14 trustees meeting often revolved around class offerings. 

The deadline to introduce bills for the first session of the Oklahoma Legislature in 2021 came and went the following week on Jan. 21. 

UCSO trustees first publicly discussed the MSC merger proposal during a special meeting on Feb. 25. Trustee Luke Pollard at the time sharply criticized the discussions and often said the timeline was too rushed. Other trustees acknowledged the narrow window for the Legislature to approve any merger before UCSO’s new fiscal year begins on July 1. 

Trustees approved the merger proposal on March 11 with trustee Eric Holquin saying, in no uncertain terms, what was at stake with the vote. 

"The issue is if we do not get this legislative action done this year, we are going to default on our loan and screw up the bonding program for the state of Oklahoma," he told trustees on March 11. 

The bill approved by the Oklahoma House on Monday, House Bill 2943, is similar to a draft bill obtained by The Ardmoreite from UCSO staff in March. The current bill was first introduced in the House on April 6. 

Turner said her vote against the bill this week was not a vote against funding higher education. 

“I wholeheartedly think that we should fund education access,” Turner said. 

“The fact that when we try to get important bills passed through, either we don’t do them in time – like this – or we don’t hear them.” 

The bill was sent to the Oklahoma Senate on Tuesday. The Oklahoma Legislature is scheduled to adjourn on May 28.

This story has been updated to include comments from Speaker Charles McCall