Oklahoma legislators have a busy week ahead with each house needing to address approximately 300 bills by the Thursday, March 11 deadline. Expect some late nights at the Capitol over the next few days. Also soon, Governor Kevin Stitt is expected to provide clarification on regulations concerning the state's ongoing COVID-19 response. His latest executive order is set to expire on March 15. KGOU's Dick Pryor and eCapitol's Shawn Ashley discuss that deadline facing the governor's office, and more, 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, on Wednesday, Governor Kevin Stitt praised Texas Governor Greg Abbott for ending the mask mandate in the state of Texas and opening up businesses 100%. Over the next few days, Governor Stitt has some decisions to make about Oklahoma's COVID-19 safety regulations. What regulations will he have to consider extending, moderating or eliminating?
Shawn Ashley: Well, there are really three regulations that affect the general public. One’s a mask mandate for employees and visitors to state government buildings. Another sets limits on public and social gatherings at 50% of the occupancy of the building in which they're held. And then there's limits on attendance indoor use sporting events and extracurricular activities. Now, if Governor Stitt’s praise of Governor Abbott's any indication, it sort of foreshadows that he may be prepared to get rid of those regulations.
Dick Pryor: It sure does. Depending on what he decides, Stitt’s next executive order could affect several laws.
Shawn Ashley: Yes, we're all aware of the Oklahoma Meeting Act amendments that allow for virtual meetings. Now, those will expire on February 15th, 2022 or thirty days after Governor Stitt’s COVID-19 state of emergency, whichever is earlier. There were also three pieces of legislation approved during the 2020 legislative session related to COVID-19 and also tied to that state of emergency. These limit the liability for businesses, manufacturers and health care providers in terms of dealing with COVID-19.
Dick Pryor: As always, this time of year, legislators have been moving quickly on rather mundane bills, but they've also been setting aside time to debate more controversial measures. What's been their approach?
Shawn Ashley: You know, typically the House and Senate leaders schedule about 50 to 60 bills and joint resolutions to be heard each day, although we have seen some even larger agendas this past week. But even then, the process is very, very similar. Most mundane bills are handled quickly, maybe within a few minutes and with a few questions. But each morning and each afternoon, some of the more controversial measures are placed on the floor, usually one or two of those which take up an hour or more of each chamber's time.
Dick Pryor: A bill that did not advance through last year's COVID-shortened session and has come back this year would require posting of “In God We Trust” in state buildings. It's interesting, after all the talk and legislation pushing back against the federal government, that Oklahoma legislators want to place the national motto in state government buildings. Did that bill generate any debate or concern about cost optics or possible legal challenges?
Shawn Ashley: House Bill 2085, when it was heard on the House floor, did generate quite a bit of debate. And there was also a handful of questions about a companion measure. Senate Bill 337, which was heard Wednesday in the Senate Appropriations Committee. Both bills passed their respective hearings. Now, the cost that's been batted around for both these pieces of legislation is about 83,000 dollars, according to the Office of Management and Enterprise Services. The House bill doesn't have a funding mechanism in it, but the Senate bill would take that money from a fund set aside for the repair and maintenance of state buildings. Now, in terms of the optics that may be involved in this, I think that's really addressed in both pieces of legislation. The legislation indicates that the placement of the inscription should not be construed to mean that the state of Oklahoma favors any particular religion or denomination. And in terms of the legality or constitutionality, both bills have language that indicate that the attorney general is authorized to prepare and present a legal defense of the description if it is challenged.
Dick Pryor: And the authors have argued this is about history, not about religion.
Shawn Ashley: Exactly.
Dick Pryor: State Treasurer Randy McDaniel has issued his monthly report on state gross receipts, and he says Oklahoma's economy is responding to significant financial and social challenges relatively well. What is he seeing that informs that statement?
Shawn Ashley: Well, when you look at the numbers themselves, they have been surprisingly robust, particularly given the situation we're in. Now, February’s collections were down slightly, but if you look at the past twelve months, which are really the pandemic. March of 2020 to February of 2019, total collections were thirteen point-one billion dollars - that's down six hundred and one million dollars. That's only a 4.4% dip in collections. A big driver of that was gross production tax collections. And what we saw other collections down, I believe they were not down as much as officials had expected.
Dick Pryor: Thank you, Shawn.
Shawn Ashley: You're very welcome.
Dick Pryor: And that's Capitol Insider. If you have questions, e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact us on Twitter @kgounews and @ecapitol. You can also find us online at kgou.org and ecapitol.net. Until next time with Shawn Ashley, I'm Dick Pryor.