With the state of Oklahoma "opening up," Governor Kevin Stitt, the Oklahoma Supreme Court and legislators address issues caused by the coronavirus pandemic. As lawmakers prepare to return to the Capitol for the final month of the session, KGOU's Dick Pryor and eCapitol's Shawn Ashley discuss the latest developments in state government.
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, as we turn the calendar to May and the last month of the 2020 legislative session. Shawn, Oklahoma is continuing to gradually and carefully reopen private businesses and government services. And while the Governor and health officials see encouraging data and are urging people to get out unless they're sick, he has consistently said the data may at some point require taking a step back.
Shawn Ashley: That's correct. Governor Stitt has been very emphatic, going all the way back into April actually, to say that even if the curve is flattened and things begin to reopen, if things take a turn for the worse, the number of cases increases or the number of deaths or hospitalizations, Oklahoma could be required to step back or slow its reopening process. There's also another element to this as well, and that's the businesses themselves. On social media, a number of restaurants and retail establishments have been indicating that they do not yet plan to open for concerns of customer health, employee health, and perhaps out of concern of exactly how many people may be ready to go out and visit those businesses.
Dick Pryor: Attorney General Mike Hunter is urging the State Auditor and Inspector to audit the State Health Department. Why is that happening now? What's he concerned about?
Shawn Ashley: Well, the issue that the Attorney General seems to be addressing is one related to the expenditure of state-appropriated dollars. Now, the Attorney General sent this letter on Tuesday after two published reports indicated what may be considered some unusual activity in expenditures related to the COVID-19 effort. One involved the purchase of masks from a Tulsa company that was reportedly under investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The other involved a $2 million purchase of hydroxychloroquine, the drug that at one time was touted as perhaps being the most effective treatment for COVID-19.
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, the Governor and Commissioner of Health, Gary Cox, attempted to sort of defend their position in these matters. The Governor pointed out that a number of safeguards have been put in place to deal with expenditures, particularly the $1.2 billion that has now come into the state from the federal government to reimburse COVID-19 related costs. Commissioner Cox said that his books are open and that he has spoken with the State Auditor and Inspector and he'll be allowing her and her staff in to do the work that they need to do.
Dick Pryor: Voting is going to be a big story in this election year. On Wednesday, a Supreme Court referee heard arguments in a case asking the court to direct the state election board to allow voters to cast absentee ballots with a signed authorization affirmed under penalty of perjury instead of requiring the authorization to be signed in front of a Notary Public. What are the arguments for and against?
Shawn Ashley: This case was brought, as you said, by the League of Women Voters and a couple of citizens of the state of Oklahoma. And what they argue is that the notary requirement is no longer necessary - it doesn't need to be met as the result of a 2002 law that eliminated some of the notary requirements on certain documents in the state of Oklahoma. They also point out that this is a very unique year and that it may be difficult, if not dangerous, for some people to go out and find a notary. In other instances, in rural counties, it may be difficult to find a notary because notaries are limited to the number of ballots that they can notarize.
The State Election Board says that 2002 law does not apply to absentee ballots, that the election laws are very specific in that the notarization of those ballots is required. The election board also points out that they're coming up on a deadline to get out absentee ballots, particularly those to overseas service members, in order that they can receive them, vote them and return them to the state of Oklahoma for the June 30th primary. It's a very interesting case and it goes into the sort of the heart of election law and general law.
And it's interesting to note that in order to register to vote, you sign an affidavit under the penalty of perjury that everything on your application is, in fact, true and accurate. But then in order to vote, you have to have that ballot notarized, which is a burden for a lot of people, particularly in those areas where there are not a lot of notaries.
Dick Pryor: So there continues to be concerns about voter fraud, and that's something that is going to have to be decided soon. What are lawmakers doing?
Shawn Ashley: Lawmakers will be back at the Capitol on Monday to begin the process of winding up the shortened 2020 session. There still a number of matters that need to be decided as well as the FY 2020 budget. Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat pointed out several weeks ago, however, that they do not expect to put as many bills on the governor's desk as they have in years past.
Dick Pryor: Thanks, Shawn.
Shawn Ashley: You're very welcome.
Dick Pryor: And, that’s Capitol Insider. If you have questions email us at firstname.lastname@example.org 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.