State marriage initiative funds that are transferred to a heating assistance program should not be replenished if the ultimate goal is to funnel additional money to high-priced consultants, according to a state lawmaker who proposed the funding transfer.
Senator Kevin Easley is applauding Governor Keating for endorsing his proposal to convert $9.5 million in marriage funds to heating assistance dollars, but he said he was disturbed by the Governor's statement on Friday that the transferred funds should be replaced. The legislator pointed out that of the marriage money that has been spent to date, the bulk has gone to a Republican political consultant for a public relations effort.
"I'm glad that Governor Keating has endorsed my idea to use the money for heating assistance, but I'm not thrilled about putting other dollars back into the marriage program if they're just going to go into the pockets of a political consultant," said Senator Easley.
Governor Keating moved approximately $10 million in surplus federal welfare funds into the state marriage initiative last March, but only a few hundred thousand dollars have been spent to date, mostly on consultants. Republican political consultant Mary Myrick* has received the biggest chunk of marriage cash so far - a one-year, $400,000 contract for public relations services. It has a renewal option for an additional three years, making it potentially a $1.6 million contract. Myrick's firm Public Strategies was the lone bidder.
Since the contract began in October, Myrick has made headlines, but not in a manner that promotes marriage. Myrick, who keeps a pet monkey at her Oklahoma City office, drew media attention in November when she and an employee attempted to prevent animal control officers from removing the monkey following a biting incident.
"I just don't see how a fat public relations contract is going to keep marriages together, especially when the person selected is better known for running political campaigns and keeping a pet monkey at her office. Rightly or wrongly, I think people are going to wonder whether this is just some kind of favor for a political friend. No matter what face you put on it, it's a questionable use of taxpayer dollars, whether they come from the state or federal level," said Senator Easley.
When he designated federal welfare funds for the marriage initiative last year, Governor Keating noted that federal guidelines allowed them to be used for ending needy families' dependence on welfare benefits by promoting marriage and two-parent homes. Senator Easley questioned whether a public relations campaign would help needy Oklahomans meet such a goal.
"I just question whether a few slick brochures, some TV commercials and a handful of marriage conferences are going to keep low-income families together and make them less dependent on welfare. Maybe if the money was being used strictly for marriage counseling for those families it would make some sense, but a public relations campaign doesn't seem like the best use of taxpayers' dollars," said Senator Easley.
According to the state legislator, the balance of marriage initiative funds, approximately $9.5 million, should be transferred to home heating assistance immediately and any future expenditures on the marriage project should be addressed by the Legislature on a case by case basis.
Until a specific program approved by the Legislature is in place, Senator Easley said he plans to fight any efforts to replace the marriage funds, especially if the funding source is other federal welfare moneys now allocated for children's programs at DHS. He noted that in recent weeks DHS officials have suggested using the children's money on heating aid
instead of marriage initiative funds, but Senator Easley said that is an unacceptable alternative.
"We're not going to raid children's programs just so someone can keep a few consultants on the state payroll. Helping working families heat their homes or provide day care for their kids is a far more appropriate use of federal welfare dollars," said Senator Easley.
* Mary Myrick ran Bob Dole's Oklahoma campaign for president in 1988 and Rob Johnson's unsuccessful bid for Congress in 1994. Myrick's firm, Public Strategies, also came under scrutiny when then-State Land Commission director Rob Johnson, a Keating appointee, awarded it a controversial $600,000 advertising contract. Most recently, Myrick made headlines when she and a firm employee attempted to prevent Oklahoma City animal control officers from removing Myrick's pet monkey from her office after a biting incident (Source: Daily Oklahoman).