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Capitol Insider: Returning To (The New) Normal

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

With summer approaching, Oklahoma is quickly moving toward resumption of pre-COVID life. In late May, Governor Kevin Stitt issued an executive order rescinding mask mandates in state buildings. The order also prohibits state agencies from requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for admission to state facilities. Previously, Stitt had ordered that schools, colleges and universities could not require vaccinations or masks. With the expiration of his state emergency order, Oklahoma is also returning to in-person meetings to comply with the Open Meeting Act. KGOU's Dick Pryor and eCapitol's Shawn Ashley discuss how the state is resuming "normal" operations in this week's Capitol Insider.


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, public bodies are now required to have either in-person meetings or partially virtual meetings now that the state's COVID-19 emergency status has expired. Partial virtual meetings must comply, though, with certain requirements. What are they?

Shawn Ashley: Yes, for a partially virtual meeting to meet the open meeting act a quorum must meet in person at a designated location and the names of the members who are going to participate in that meeting virtually, and the locations from which they are going to participate, must be listed on the agenda and they can't change their minds and attend in person. And those locations must be accessible to and open to the public. So really what that means is attending a meeting from your living room or perhaps your bedroom is probably a thing of the past.

Dick Pryor: But we have learned a lot during COVID. Has there been any thought that there might actually be benefits to having virtual meetings where more people might be able to watch or participate than if the meetings are totally in person?

Shawn Ashley: Yes, I think there has. Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat wants to see the Open Meeting Act modernized. He had a bill to do that, but it did not get final language during the legislative session and it never made it all the way through the legislative process. Treat stressed there has to be a balance between letting public body members participate remotely, which could increase interest even in serving on public bodies as well as public access, so that remote meetings are not used for members to hide from the public and from members of the media.

Dick Pryor: The Pardon and Parole Board operated from December to March with four members instead of five, and that meant that some pardon, parole and commutation applications were denied because of tie votes. Now the board has full five members. Will they be revisiting those cases that were tied?

Shawn Ashley: They are considering that. The board has asked its staff to prepare list of commutation, parole and pardon applications that were heard during that time period and that were denied because of those tie votes. Now, some of those cases will not be able to be reviewed again because of statutory requirements or pardon and parole board rules. And in some cases, they may even have to ask the governor to get involved and request that certain cases be reheard. Scott Williams, who Governor Kevin Stitt appointed to the board in March, its newest and fifth member, said there was at least one application on the March meeting agenda that was denied because of a two to two vote that he would have voted in favor of approving. So, it seems like there is some interest in bringing some of those cases back.

Dick Pryor: Next, we go to COVID. Oklahoma's deputy commissioner of health reports 54 percent of eligible Oklahomans have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccination. National figures show 34.5 percent in Oklahoma are fully vaccinated, which ranks Oklahoma 41st among all states. Now, the Biden administration is urging states to reach 70 percent fully vaccinated by July 4th. But Governor Stitt has refused federal funding to provide vaccination incentives. What is the state's vaccination goal?

Shawn Ashley: Well, Deputy Commissioner of Health Keith Reed said the state should be able to get close to 65 percent fully vaccinated. That, he indicated, was the number of Oklahomans who had indicated in surveys and polls that they were interested in getting the vaccine. We're not giving up, Reid told reporters Thursday, adding that the department wanted to see the number of fully vaccinated increase. But Oklahoma's top number, it seems, of 65 percent, is below not just the July 4th goal of the Biden administration, but their overall goal of closer to 80 to 85 percent, which would lead to herd immunity.

Dick Pryor: Right. It's almost summer and the lodge at Oklahoma's first state park, Quartz Mountain, will be opening soon following renovations. But getting to this point was complicated, Shawn.

Shawn Ashley: Yeah, this really sort of shows the reach of the legislature. From 2001 to 2020, the State Regents for Higher Education were responsible for overseeing the lodge at Quartz Mountain State Park. In 2020, legislation passed by lawmakers and signed by the governor transferred that facility back to the Department of Tourism and Recreation. And lawmakers also approved a fifty-million-dollar bond issue to make improvements in the state parks all throughout the system. Now more than 10 million dollars of that has been spent on renovating Quartz Mountain State Lodge, the guestrooms were refurbished, the grand entry was expanded, a new gift shop was added, the grounds were improved and there is a new restaurant there, as well. The facility will have a grand reopening on June 18th and reopened to the public later in the month.

Dick Pryor: That will be most welcome. Thanks, Shawn.

Shawn Ashley: You're very welcome.

Dick Pryor: And that's Capitol Insider. If you have questions, e-mail us at new@kgoug.org or contact us on Twitter @kgounews and @ecapitol. You can also find us online @kgou.org and ecapitol.net. Until next time, with Shawn Ashley, I'm Dick Pryor.

Dick Pryor has more than 25 years of experience in public service media, having previously served as deputy director, managing editor, news manager, news anchor and host for OETA, Oklahoma’s statewide public TV network. He was named general manager of KGOU Radio in November, 2016.
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