Law & Principles

Ray Carter | May 28, 2020

Legislative session ends with few accomplishments

Ray Carter

Constitutionally, this year’s session of the Oklahoma Legislature had to adjourn by 5 p.m. on Friday, May 29. But the session has been effectively adjourned for weeks, other than a single day when lawmakers returned to override gubernatorial vetoes.

When they effectively ended the session, lawmakers left with few accomplishments to tout, many meaningful reforms sidelined, and touting a budget the governor warns has set the state up for severe financial challenges next year.

Gov. Kevin Stitt’s efforts to bring spending in line with revenue during a year when officials ultimately faced a $1.3 billion shortfall were met with hostility from lawmakers, who negotiated a budget without Stitt’s participation and then overrode his veto of the plan. Among other things, Stitt said the plan relied too much on one-time funds that created a $1 billion structural deficit, and he objected to lawmakers’ diverting funds from already-struggling state pensions.

During the final days of the session, Stitt did not back down from his criticism of business-as-usual at the Oklahoma Legislature.

“I was elected to think about things differently,” Stitt said. “I’ve never been in politics before, and Oklahomans wanted a businessperson at the governor’s seat. I work for all 4 million Oklahomans, and not necessarily for these 10,000 insiders around this Capitol. And so every decision I make is going to be to protect the taxpayer, to think about what is best for the next generation—not the next election.”

The list of major issues left unaddressed by lawmakers is long.

In his State of the State address in February, Stitt noted Oklahoma ranks 28th among states in population but 9th in the number of state agencies and called for agency consolidation to reduce duplication and wasteful spending.

Despite facing a $1.3 billion shortfall that would seemingly incentivize a search for efficiencies, lawmakers adjourned without addressing agency consolidation.

During his speech, Stitt also endorsed a major reform of the state workforce by putting Oklahoma government on the path to having a majority of state workers classified as “at will” employees, as are most private-sector workers.

While bills to achieve that goal advanced in both the House and Senate, they were shelved when the Legislature recessed for several weeks beginning in March due to COVID-19 concerns, and never revived.

Rep. Mike Osburn, an Edmond Republican who authored one of the bills to reform the state workforce, issued a statement near the end of the session, saying the “discussion and collaboration necessary for a heavy lift like civil service reform was not fully possible this year due to factors beyond our control with COVID-19, so I am not advancing this legislation at this time.”

Many other major issues advanced through the Oklahoma Senate, but were never granted a hearing by House leadership.

Legislation to reinstate a cap on noneconomic damages, a much-praised lawsuit reform that had been in place for most of a decade before a court decision struck it down, cleared the Senate. But that legislation, which would have allowed Oklahomans to amend the state constitution to cap vague non-economic damages in lawsuits, was never granted a hearing in the House, even though medical and business officials alike said the cap was an important tool to increase the number of medical providers in Oklahoma and make the state more attractive to businesses.

Lawmakers tacitly indicated that major lawsuit reform is needed in Oklahoma when they passed several narrowly tailored measures late in the session that provide protection from lawsuits for various businesses and medical providers active in anti-pandemic efforts.

The Senate also advanced legislation to deter “surprise” medical bills. The Senate legislation would have protected citizens’ credit scores from being downgraded, their wages garnished, or other collection activities pursued when a patient is not provided advance notice of all medical charges prior to treatment. The bill easily passed through the Senate, but that legislation was never granted a hearing by House leadership, even though the pandemic increased the likelihood that many Oklahomans will now be facing potential “surprise” medical bills.

A school-choice measure that passed the Senate in 2019 was likewise never granted a hearing by House leadership in 2020, even though the bill would have helped not only low-income students attend quality private schools but also incentivized millions of dollars in private donations to public schools.

On the other hand, some bills were advanced by House leadership that never received a hearing in the Senate. Among them was a measure requiring medical professionals serving pregnant women to undergo “implicit bias” training. Supporters said the legislation could reduce maternal and infant deaths among racial minorities and reap federal grant money.

Another bill advanced by the House, but that never received a hearing in the Senate, would have allowed clinics to provide clean needles to heroin addicts and other drug users.

Lawmakers in both chambers voted to give bigger benefit payments to retired state government workers, but provided no funding for those increased benefits. As a result, the benefit increase will drain core pension assets at a faster rate, reducing the funded status of state pensions and increasing unfunded liability. Two pension systems, those for teachers and firefighters, are already well below fully funded status and the unfunded benefit increase will further set those systems back. The combination of the unfunded benefit increase and stock market decline this year may reduce the funded status of the teachers’ system to as low as 62 percent.

At the end of most sessions, the governor and legislative leaders typically issue press releases touting accomplishments. Yet this year Senate Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, was the only leader to do so.

He cited the budget as the session’s major accomplishment.

“While some predicted cuts as high as 7.5 percent across the board, we were able to protect public education and other core services and limited cuts to no more than 4.1 percent,” Treat said. “Education will actually see more money when you factor in federal coronavirus relief funding. Our budget agreement is far better than anyone could have predicted given the unprecedented financial circumstances. When the budget was vetoed, the Legislature took steps to protect public schools and other core services by overriding the veto.”

He also cited the narrowly tailored lawsuit reform bills as an accomplishment, and passage of a bill to address voter-fraud concerns in absentee balloting.

House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, did not issue a press release, but in a subsequent interview with KWTV, the CBS affiliate in Oklahoma City, McCall said he was “very proud of the House of Representatives and state government overall, pulling together, working together in a bipartisan manner to accomplish the work that we constitutionally have to secure before the end of May.”

Stitt had a different view, suggesting much more needs to be done to improve Oklahoma and make it a “top 10” state.

“I’m not going to let ‘just the way we used to do stuff’ keep us from moving forward,” Stitt said.

(AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

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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