Budget & Tax

Ray Carter | April 2, 2020

Lawmakers to reconvene to consider health emergency

Ray Carter

An executive order issued by Gov. Kevin Stitt, which declares the existence of a “health emergency in the State of Oklahoma” caused by the COVID-19 virus, also requires lawmakers to return to the Capitol on Monday, April 6, to meet in a special legislative session.

Due to COVID-19, lawmakers have not been in session since March 17.

Following a gubernatorial declaration of a “catastrophic health emergency” state law requires the Legislature to convene in special session within two working days “for the purpose of concurring with or terminating the catastrophic health emergency.”

For the declaration to take legal effect, the Legislature must approve it in a special session. The Legislature can also “terminate a state of catastrophic health emergency at any time.”

Under state law, during a declared state health emergency the governor has the power to suspend “the provisions of any regulatory statute” affecting state agencies “to the extent that strict compliance with the same would prevent, hinder, or delay necessary action (including emergency purchases) by the public health authority to respond to the catastrophic health emergency, or increase the health threat to the population.”

The governor could also transfer the direction, personnel, or functions of state departments and agencies, mobilize the National Guard into service, and seek federal aid.

Oklahoma law also allows state and local officials “to separate affected individuals from the population at large to interrupt disease transmission” when a declaration of a catastrophic health emergency has been issued.

During an afternoon press conference, Stitt said the order would increase the efficiency of COVID-19 response efforts.

“With this order, the state can get workers and money to the front lines of our COVID-19 response as quickly as possible,” Stitt said. “We are also streamlining our operations between our state, our county officials, all the different health departments across our state. It’s strengthening our partnerships and our ability to share data and set up more of those mobile testing labs.”

He said the order “does not deploy the National Guard for enforcement purposes.” Instead, he said the National Guard will be used to assist in logistics, including the delivery of medical supplies.

Lawmakers are expected to approve Stitt’s action and legislative leaders said they will simultaneously convene in regular session to address the budget shortfall for the current budget year, which is expected to be about $220 million.

“We are going to stabilize the budget so services can continue uninterrupted and affirm the governor’s health emergency declaration to step up Oklahoma’s battle against COVID-19,” said House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka. “The Legislature’s time to act is here, and we are prepared to do so in a safe manner that is compliant with current health guidelines.”

Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City also said he supports the emergency declaration.

“This will just give the governor more flexibility and authority to coordinate the overall state response to the health crisis,” Treat said.

Senate Minority Leader Kay Floyd said Senate Democrats are reviewing the issue.

“We’re still trying to get an idea exactly what increase in perhaps support or funding we get by having an emergency medical executive order like this,” said Floyd, D-Oklahoma City.

House Democratic Leader Emily Virgin said her caucus will likely support the declaration.

“The executive order is a little late,” said Virgin, D-Norman. “But House Democrats will fulfill our obligation to our constituents and concur. I plan on working with Speaker McCall’s office the next few days to ensure we do so in the safest manner possible.”

Treat said senators are working on protocols and senators will likely be voting in shifts to observe social distancing and reduce the likelihood of virus transmission. Several lawmakers and staff from both chambers have tested positive for COVID-19 in recent weeks.

Capitol access will remain restricted with only elected officials, certain legislative staff, and some press present. No gatherings of more than 10 will be allowed in any room, officials said.

Before entering the Capitol, House members and staff will have their temperature taken. No one with a temperature above 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit will be admitted. The House has authorized proxy voting, so legislators who cannot be present may still be allowed to vote.

Livestreaming video of floor and committee proceedings will continue to be provided online.

The State Board of Equalization is scheduled to meet Monday morning to certify a revenue failure for the current state budget year, which runs through June 30. That will determine how much money lawmakers must provide in emergency appropriation from state savings.

Treat said he does not expect any committee work to be part of next week’s activity, but that the process to appropriate funding to fill the 2020 budget hole could take one of two paths. One option would require four days of session while the other would involve just one day by using rule suspension to “fast track” the process.

“Right now, it’s unknown if we’re going to be in one day or four days next week,” Treat said. “I think it’s really either/or. I don’t think it’s a question of is there something in between there. If we can find some vehicle that is left over from 2019 that’s closely enough related that we can insert language and suspend rules, we could potentially do it all on Monday. But that’s just a potential, so I think we need to plan for and prepare for four days next week.”

He said no policy measures will be taken up next week and that lawmakers will focus only on the health declaration and 2020 budget shortfall.

The Legislature will have to reconvene at an as-yet-undetermined future date to address policy issues, pass the 2021 state budget, and consider 70 executive nominations, Treat said.

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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