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2021 Legislative Preview: Oklahoma Senate Leader Answers StateImpact’s Questions

The Oklahoma Senate
Becky McCray
The Oklahoma Senate

The state Legislature’s session was badly disrupted last year by the pandemic . It’s back starting Monday, and faces a long list of pressing issues and unfinished work from 2020. StateImpact health reporter Chatherine Sweeney, education reporter Robby Korth, and criminal justice reporter Quinton Chandler met with Republican Oklahoma Senate President Pro Temp Greg Treat to talk about his priorities before the gavel drops next week, and share their thoughts on where lawmakers are focusing their attention.

What we’ll be watching

Robby Korth, StateImpact education reporter: The COVID-19 pandemic turned education on its head. Measures introduced in the 2021 session are designed to combat new issues faced by schools because of the coronavirus as well as address old ones that were exacerbated by the pandemic.

Legislators are looking at ways to incentivize schools to offer in-person schooling, making transfers between districts easier and addressing the teacher shortage.

Legislators are increasingly interested in making sure long periods of distance learning that happened in 2020 never happen again.

One measure introduced would require a certain number of instructional days to be held in person unless schools were granted a waiver.

Enrollment reform bills are meant to make it easier for students to flow from school to school. Republicans have introduced a number of bills to increase availability to the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship program, which offers scholarships to students to attend private K-12 schools.

The heavily Republican legislature broadened Gov. Kevin Stitt’s powers during the 2019 session and to combat the coronavirus in 2020.

But Democrats, who have a dwindling minority in both chambers, introduced legislation to reduce some government oversight. Measures include ones to disband the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board and have the State Board of Education take over its duties and no longer have members of the state school board serve at the pleasure of the governor.

Quinton Chandler, StateImpact criminal justice reporter: There are pieces of legislation this session that aim for more consistent punishments for crimes already on the books. Some lawmakers are also hoping to create shorter prison terms for convicted Oklahomans and make it easier for people to get modified sentences. Other reform measures tackle reentry obstacles for people leaving prison, voting rights and health care for incarcerated people, and funding for addiction treatment.

Lawmakers have also filed bills that call for harsher punishments for defendants accused of “rioting,” increased legal protections for police officers who shoot people while on duty and more legal latitude for gun owners.

There are also multiple bills calling for services for domestic violence and sexual assault victims and lawmakers will attempt to pass legislation that would eliminate sentence enhancements for people convicted of nonviolent crimes. A similar proposal put to voters in a state question last year failed. It was heavily criticized because exceptions for violent crimes, and convictions that would require defendants to register as sex offenders, did not include crimes such as domestic violence offenses. Legislation filed this year would leave those offenses eligible for sentence enhancements.

Catherine Sweeney, StateImpact health reporter: Although Medicaid expansion and the coronavirus will weigh heavily on the Legislature’s workload this year, members have other things on their plate.

The Stitt Administration is moving forward with managed Medicaid, which would fundamentally change how the program is administered for most enrollees. Also known as managed care, the policy brings in a private company to coordinate care for each member. Instead of paying providers directly for services, Oklahoma’s Medicaid agency would pay a lump sum per enrollee to the managed care company, which would then serve as an intermediary between the state and medical providers. The policy is controversial, and has drawn several critics in the Legislature. Many members have drafted bills to regulate the program, and in some cases, block it completely.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only exposed and worsened Oklahoma’s health worker shortage. Several members have introduced legislation that aims to stymie it. For example, House Speaker Charles McCall introduced a bill that would create a large tax break for physicians who begin practicing in the state’s underserved rural areas. Senate Health and Human Services Chairman Greg McCortney filed a bill that would allow the Oklahoma Department of Corrections to create a training program for hospice workers.

Like on the federal level, state-level lawmakers are putting forward legislation that aims to increase transparency in drug and medical pricing.

StateImpact Oklahoma is a partnership of Oklahoma’s public radio stations which relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online.

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