An opinion written by state Attorney General Mike Hunter will immediately change the way payments are handled between the Oklahoma Department of Corrections and county jails. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

Caught between the Oklahoma Constitution and a scuffle with the state Department of Corrections, the Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association sought a ruling from former Attorney General Scott Pruitt.

The organization asked Pruitt whether it was a violation of the state Constitution to make county governments pay to hold sentenced inmates before those inmates are transferred to a DOC facility.

The former AG never ruled on the request, OSA Executive Director Ray McNair said. But when Pruitt left to lead President Donald Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency, and Mike Hunter replaced him, the OSA got a surprising answer.

According to an opinion written by Hunter this week, county jails cannot be required to pay to hold an inmate who has been found guilty of a crime.

To do so would violate the Oklahoma Constitution, which states that “ad valorem” tax dollars cannot be used to fund a state agency. Ad valorem – or property tax – revenue is used at the county level to fund jail operations, among other things.

Hunter’s opinion effectively neuters the law that had been used to determine who paid for a sentenced inmate. Prior to Hunter’s ruling, county jails were required to send “judgment and sentencing” paperwork (a document filed in court listing sentencing requirements) to the DOC within three days of sentencing. The law had been referred to as the “three-day rule,” but a 2016 House bill amended the law and gave counties five days to submit the paperwork. That law doesn’t go into effect until Nov. 1, but is now unnecessary given Hunter’s ruling.

“It didn’t matter if it was three days or five days or 30 days,” McNair said. “Sheriffs are not in control of that paperwork and have no say when they receive it.”

McNair said that often left county jails at a disadvantage. If everything went according to plan, and a sheriff’s office was able to submit the “J&S” to DOC within five days, the state paid $27 for every day that inmate was in a country jail between conviction and transfer to a state prison. Miss that five-day window, and the county was on the hook until that transport took place.

The ruling should have an immediate effect, McNair said, as AG opinions instantly become law.

It could have a rather drastic budgetary effect for everyone involved.

The Tulsa Jail, for instance, has projected that it would have an operating shortfall of more than $3 million for the next fiscal year. And last March, Tulsa County sued the DOC to recoup some of the money it claimed it had lost due to the “three-day rule.” The lawsuit asked for $10 million the county said it had been shorted going back to 2012.

At the same time, DOC isn’t exactly swimming in cash. New Director Joe Allbaugh announced a hiring freeze in February and said the agency would finish the current fiscal year about $3 million short.

The result has been a tussle between two like-minded agencies.

“We’re not out here trying to bankrupt DOC,” McNair said. “We all have to work together. But then again, every sheriff takes an oath to uphold the state Constitution, and you can’t force a sheriff who has no control over when he gets those (judgment and sentencing) documents to violate the Constitution by paying for state inmates with county tax dollars.”

For DOC, Hunter’s opinion adds to already uncertain times. In November, an amended law goes into effect that would change the amount of money it is required to pay county jails for holding state inmates. Right now DOC pays $27 per inmate per day. The change in law will turn that from a flat fee into an amount that will vary by jurisdiction.

“So for Tulsa County, for instance, you may see a fee of like $50 a day,” McNair said. Court records show Tulsa County has requested DOC remit $55.81 per day for each state inmate in county custody. “Whereas in a panhandle jail, it may be less than that, like $20 a day.”

Though that law goes into effect in November, DOC won’t begin paying the increased amounts until 2019.

Mark Myers, a spokesman for DOC, said only that the agency was reviewing Hunter’s ruling from this week and would have no other comment at the moment.

“We’re still determining its effect,” Myers said.

Correction: This story originally incorrectly listed the timeline of asking for an opinion by the Attorney General. It has been corrected.