Culture & the Family , Good Government
Ray Carter | March 17, 2020
Legislature to restrict public access to Capitol
To deal with public-health concerns created by the coronavirus, the Legislature will dramatically restrict access to the Oklahoma Capitol in the coming weeks, legislative leaders have announced.
In the Oklahoma House of Representatives, lawmakers have also approved the use of proxy voting in which one member is authorized to vote for many of his or her peers in order to reduce the size of group gatherings.
“In the state of Oklahoma, the government is working, is functioning, and will continue to work and function,” said House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka.
For the time being, access to the Capitol will be restricted to members of the Legislature, legislative staff, select agency employees required to appear before lawmakers, and members of the press. Members of the general public, including contract lobbyists hired to advocate on behalf of various citizens and interests, will not be allowed in the building.
“We do not take these decisions lightly,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City. “We are not in a panic, but we are taking this seriously to try to make sure that we protect our staff, our members, and the public.”
“This is, in fact, a public health issue,” said Senate Minority Leader Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City. “None of us look at this as a partisan or a nonpartisan issue.”
Due to spring break at schools across Oklahoma, the Legislature was scheduled to meet only two days this week, a decision made prior to the coronavirus outbreak. Lawmakers could return to work next Monday, March 23, but lawmakers left open the door to an indefinite adjournment.
“Whether or not we will be in next week has yet to be decided,” said House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City.
Echols said both chambers will be allowed to adjourn to the “call of the chair,” a procedure that will allow the two bodies to adjourn for an extended period.
“We’re not just telling our citizens to social distance and to take proper steps, but the Legislature is doing those things,” Echols said.
All legislative meetings and floor activity will continue to be streamed live and, in the House, publicly archived.
Members of the House also authorized the use of proxy voting through House Resolution 1032. (The Senate has not authorized proxy voting.)
“What that means is that, on an emergency basis, we would be able to send just a few people to the House floor in order to vote on very important measures,” said House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman. “That would include the state budget, which is our only constitutional duty as a state legislature.”
“What we did today is very unprecedented in the House—moving forward with a proxy voting system,” Echols said.
He said House lawmakers chose to authorize proxy voting in case the 101-member body exceeds recommended guidelines issued by federal health authorities for the size of public gatherings.
Proxy voting will not be allowed in committee. Echols said proxy voting would occur on “major bills” under “extraordinary” circumstances.
McCall noted that budget discussions have been underway since before the start of the legislative session in February, and said work continues. While budget figures certified by the State Board of Equalization in February showed that lawmakers face an $85 million shortfall this year, that number has likely increased substantially since that time as a result of falling oil prices and the current economic fallout from the coronavirus.
McCall said that “budgeting teams” are “already looking at what the numbers will likely be at the end of the 2020 budget. Those are being considered and those numbers are being calculated.”
Legislative leaders said the restrictions on public access and other emergency measures will be reviewed on a day-to-day basis, but that work will continue.
“We are committed to finishing this constitutional session and fulfilling our constitutional duties to the people of the state of Oklahoma,” McCall said.
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.