Capitol Insider: Budget Fix Nearing Conclusion
Legislators returned to work at the state Capitol with new policies and procedures to protect members and staff from the COVID-19 virus. News of a current budget year revenue failure dominated the regular and special session, while a disagreement with Governor Stitt delayed the approval process. KGOU's Dick Pryor and eCapitol's Shawn Ashley discussed the eventful week under the dome.
Dick Pryor: This is Capitol Insider, your weekly look inside Oklahoma politics, policy and government. I'm Dick Pryor with eCapitol news director Shawn Ashley. Shawn, the pace at the Capitol has picked up over the last few days with legislators returning to the building, the governor issuing new emergency orders and amid it all, candidate filing. So, House and Senate members enacted new safety protocols and returned to the floor on Monday for a regular and special session. Special sessions are called extraordinary. What made Monday's session so extraordinary?
Shawn Ashley: Well, as you mentioned, it was the safety protocols that were put in place to protect members of the legislature, as well as members of the press and staff members who were there from the potential spread of COVID-19. Most members were wearing masks while they were on the floor. And the number of people on the floor at any one time was kept to a minimum. So what we saw on vote after vote were members coming to the floor in waves in the House. All the House members had been divided up into groups and they would call them group by group. They would vote and leave. In the Senate, it was based on which hallway your office was on. And that hallway would be called to the floor. Those members would vote and then immediately leave the floor. So, most of the time you only had four or five people at most, on either the House or Senate floor during both the special and regular session.
Dick Pryor: Lawmakers passed three bills to address the anticipated revenue shortfall for the current fiscal year. How big is the hole expected to be and how do legislators propose to fill it?
Shawn Ashley: Governor Kevin Stitt announced that the hole in this current fiscal year's budget would be about $460 million in the General Revenue Fund and in the House Bill 1017 Fund, which is a separate fund that also receives a lot of money from income tax, sales tax and some of the same revenue sources as the General Revenue Fund. It would have about a $30 million shortfall.
Dick Pryor: The process took an unexpected turn when Governor Stitt canceled the Board of Equalization meeting, which had been set for Monday afternoon.
Shawn Ashley: That's right. Lawmakers had passed, on Monday morning, three pieces of legislation to address the budget hole. One of them is entirely dependent upon the Board of Equalization formally declaring a revenue failure. However, Governor Stitt, shortly before that meeting was scheduled to begin, decided to cancel it, citing technical issues with at least one of the bills that had been passed by the House and at that point was awaiting consideration by the Senate. All three bills later passed the Senate as well, including the one about which the governor was concerned. That bill contained language that said one fund, the Digital Transformation Revolving Fund, would not receive additional funding to make up for any revenue loss.
Dick Pryor: Shawn, on Tuesday, the governor proposed the possibility of budget cuts for state agencies, which prompted a rather unprecedented response from House and Senate leaders.
Shawn Ashley: Yes. In fact, and in many years here, I've never seen the legislature sort of come together as they did, except perhaps on Monday when they originally passed these bills. When the bills were passed there was only one vote against any of the three measures that came in the Senate - from Senator Nathan Dahm, a Republican from Broken Arrow. But on Tuesday, after the governor mentioned that he might be interested in implementing cuts for the fiscal year, we heard from the House Speaker, the Senate President Pro Tem. We heard from the budget chairs in both the House and the Senate, and we heard from the minority caucus leaders in the House and in the Senate and then individual members on social media who all said the same thing: that now is not the time to cut the state budget as Oklahoma is dealing not only with a budget problem, but also with the COVID-19 crisis.
Dick Pryor: Shawn, Governor Stitt has announced the state is prepared for the expected peak. Very briefly, what does the State Department of Health modeling show?
Shawn Ashley: Yes, we finally saw numbers Friday from the State Department of Health model related to COVID-19. And they're predicting that peak will occur on April 21st, when there will be 436 new cases of individuals testing positive for COVID-19 and unfortunately, 22 deaths by May 1st. The model indicates that Oklahoma could have as many as 9,000 cases of COVID-19 and record 469 deaths. And keep in mind, that's just over a two- month period - March and April. And that's approximately seven times as many deaths from COVID-19 as died during the seven-month flu period that we've recently experienced.
Dick Pryor: All right. Thanks, Shawn. And, that’s Capitol Insider. If you have questions email us at email@example.com or contact us on Twitter @kgounews. You can also find us online at kgou.org and ecapitol.net. Until next time, with Shawn Ashley, I’m Dick Pryor.