Culture & the Family

Ray Carter | April 6, 2020

Lawmakers concur with health emergency declaration

Ray Carter

Both chambers of the Oklahoma Legislature have voted to grant Gov. Kevin Stitt greater power to respond to the COVID-19 virus outbreak.

House Concurrent Resolution 1001X gives legislative approval to Stitt’s declaration of a state health emergency, which expands the governor’s power under the Catastrophic Health Emergency Powers Act.

HCR 1001X passed the Oklahoma House of Representatives on a 99-1 vote and passed the Senate 39-1.

“The powers that we are giving the governor are very broad,” said House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City. “This is the equivalent of the Oklahoma Wartime Powers Act.”

Under HCR 1001X, the governor has broad authority to suspend regulations and even laws in order to facilitate a more efficient response to a health emergency.

The governor’s declaration lasts for 30 days, and the Legislature can revoke the granting of emergency powers “at any time,” Echols said. If the emergency is extended beyond 30 days, the Legislature will have to reauthorize that extension.

Among the powers granted to the governor is the ability to shift millions in state funding, although lawmakers did not specify which specific funding sources will be affected.

“This act allows him to move money around, up to $50 million,” noted House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman.

Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, noted that HCR 1001X includes a requirement for notification of lawmakers.

“The governor must serve notice both to myself and to the speaker if he plans on utilizing that health emergency in ways he has not previously described,” Treat said.

He said Stitt has outlined four intended uses for the emergency powers granted through the emergency declaration: to utilize personal health information in assisting first responders, empower the state Health Department to coordinate a statewide preparedness response, waive certain occupational licensing requirements, and enforce the suspension of elective surgeries.

“If the governor decides to expand the use of these emergency powers, this resolution requires him to explain to both the House and the Senate what those purposes are,” Treat said. “It is our intention that those become public immediately.”

Rep. Kevin West, R-Moore, asked if the Legislature would have any oversight role.

Echols said state law establishes a formal role for legislative input during an emergency declaration but admitted “the statute’s a little nebulous as to exactly the powers of the group.”

Echols said Reps. Chris Kannady, R-Oklahoma City, and Stan May, R-Broken Arrow, will fulfill that role for House lawmakers. Echols said the governor “doesn’t have to follow what that group says” but that the group does provide “some level of oversight.”

The lone opponent in the House, Rep. Tommy Hardin, suggested less-sweeping measures could be enacted to address COVID-19 challenges.

“I read through the Oklahoma Catastrophic Health Emergency Plan, and this plan seems to be a long-term plan, not a 30-day plan,” said Hardin, R-Madill. “And I fear by implementing this plan, we will cause more harm than good.”

Hardin said the Legislature could give the governor the powers requested without resorting to an emergency declaration.

“I also notice in this catastrophic emergency plan, that there was no exit plan,” Hardin said.

The seriousness of the COVID-19 challenge was visibly present throughout the legislative proceedings.

Proxy voting was used for 16 legislators who were not physically present. House leaders previously said lawmakers who had tested positive for COVID-19 or may have been exposed to the virus, or those with family members from vulnerable populations, would be able to use proxy voting.

Many lawmakers wore masks and gloves, and members of both the House and Senate voted in shifts to ensure that no more than 10 people were gathered in the chamber at any time.

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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