In an Executive Order issued Friday, March 12, Governor Kevin Stitt extended Oklahoma's state of emergency in all 77 counties due to COVID-19, but ended restrictions on events and masking in state government buildings. The Executive Order noted Oklahoma has reported 431,366 novel coronavirus cases, but added that 24% of Oklahomans have received at least one vaccination. The new order will remain in effect for thirty days. The governor also updated the state's guidelines for visitation in long-term care facilities.
In this Capitol Insider segment, KGOU's Dick Pryor and eCapitol's Shawn Ashley discuss the state's pandemic response and bills making their way through the legislature.
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. It's been an eventful last week at the legislature, and we'll get to that in a minute, but first - coronavirus. On Thursday, Governor Stitt followed Texas, Mississippi and some other states in ending coronavirus limitations in the state. Shawn, what exactly did the governor do?
Shawn Ashley: Well, the governor is terminating the provisions of his COVID-19 State of Emergency Executive Order that really are public facing - that affect the public. Those would include the mask mandate in state government buildings for both staff and visitors and also eliminating the limitation on the size of social and public gatherings in attendance limits that youth, sporting events and extracurricular activities.
Dick Pryor: Some cities will continue their restrictions and that includes Oklahoma City, Norman and Tulsa. And medical professionals have expressed criticism. Dr. George Monks', president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, said “letting up our efforts to battle COVID-19 now is like a football player spiking the ball at the five yard line.” There are still many people waiting to get vaccinations, the virus is still active and variants are posing new threats. So why are state officials saying now is the time to let up and in Dr. Monks' words “spike the ball?”
Shawn Ashley: Well, at a press conference on Thursday, what they talked about is how the situation has improved. And Governor Stitt even said the end of the pandemic is near. If you look at the number of cases, the seven-day average is down to just over 600 per day. Now, that's down 85 percent since its mid-January highs and hospitalizations are down to their lowest level since June - well below the highs that we saw in January. But perhaps more importantly for Governor Stitt, what he pointed out is that the standard for normal cannot be zero COVID-19 cases in the state. And they went on to say the standard for normal is freedom - the freedom to worship, the freedom to earn a paycheck, the freedom to visit your loved ones in nursing homes, the freedom to send your kids to school in person and the freedom to protect your family.
Dick Pryor: Moving to the legislature, somewhat out of the blue three tax cut bills have advanced. What's being proposed?
Shawn Ashley: Speaker Charles McCall has two of those bills. One is an individual income tax cut that would really affect all taxpayers in the state. And it also includes a provision that would restore the earned income tax refundability. He also has a second provision that phases out the corporate income tax over time. Across the rotunda, Senate Majority Floor Leader Kim David won approval of a bill that eliminates the motor vehicle sales tax that was implemented in 2017 to help balance the state budget.
Dick Pryor: Both houses pushed forward several bills limiting abortion. Arkansas has essentially banned abortion. What are Oklahoma legislators trying to do?
Shawn Ashley: Senator Nathan said the purpose of Senate Bill 723, one of two bills that prohibit abortions after six weeks if a fetal heartbeat is detected, is really designed to protect the lives of the unborn. He noted that his bill is very similar to the one that was approved and signed in Arkansas. Representative Todd Russ, author of the other “heartbeat” bill, expressed hope that the measure might be used to overturn Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision which legalized abortion. There are other bills that would terminate doctors’ licenses for performing abortions except in certain circumstances, another series of bills which impose new regulations on doctors who prescribe abortion-inducing drugs and Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat has a bill which would repeal the state's abortion regulations and make abortion illegal in Oklahoma if Roe v. Wade is overturned.
Dick Pryor: Many bills have moved forward on roughly 80-18 votes in the House and 38-9 votes in the Senate, which tends to be along strict party lines. How much consensus building is going on this session?
Shawn Ashley: Well, I think it really depends on which chamber you're in. In the House of Representatives, what we see is that Republican leaders are responding to complaints and pushes by Democrats over a number of years, like the Earned Income Tax Credit refundability. Democrats have been pushing for that for several years and we see that it exists in House Speaker Charles McCall's tax relief bill. In the Senate, however, it seems like they are sitting down and working together. A bill passed on Thursday imposes certain regulations on pharmacy benefit manager. And legislators on the floor talked about how they had worked together to arrive at a consensus on the final version of the bill, which was approved.
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 and @ecapitol. You can also find us online at kgou.org and ecapitol.net. Until next time, with Shawn Ashley, I’m Dick Pryor.