Now that they have been sworn into office, the members of Oklahoma's next legislature are focusing on getting ready for the session that begins in February. In this week's Capitol Insider, KGOU's Dick Pryor and eCapitol's Shawn Ashley talk about the work that lies ahead.
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. The pace of news at the state capitol is picking up as we head toward Thanksgiving. This is often a time when legislators get serious about pre-filing legislation. Shawn, it's too early to get a read on the policy trends. So, let's talk about the process. And it's more involved than people may realize.
Shawn Ashley: That's right. Bill filing really got underway on November 16th. And thus far we've only seen about 40 measures. More than 2,000 will be filed by the time lawmakers begin the legislative session. Right now, lawmakers have until December 11th to let staff know that they would like to propose a bill about a particular subject or affecting a specific area of law that's known as a bill request. And then they'll work with staff up till January 21st to perfect that bill to get it generally where they want it to be so that it can be pre-filed and then go through the legislative process in the spring.
Dick Pryor: Funding for Medicaid expansion will be an issue during the session, but otherwise legislative leaders haven't given an indication of their priorities. We should be learning more about the direction of the session, though, soon.
Shawn Ashley: Oh, that's exactly right. We're just past the election. Members have been sworn in, which they have to do in order to pre-file legislation. But usually in December, we begin to hear from legislative leaders about the issues they plan to tackle in the upcoming session. House Speaker Charles McCall, Speaker Pro Tem Greg Treat, House Minority Leader Emily Virgin and Senate Minority Leader Kay Floyd are all scheduled to speak, for example, at the State Chamber’s Public Affairs Forum in December. So, we'll begin to hear more from them then and then in January, they typically roll out their agendas for the coming legislative session.
Dick Pryor: House Majority Leader Jon Echols says it's a statistical certainty that legislators will get infected with COVID-19. Now, that's being realistic, but there's also staff and visitors to be concerned about. What are lawmakers doing to determine safety protocols for the lead up to the legislative session?
Shawn Ashley: You know, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, more than 160 lawmakers have come down with COVID-19, and that includes quite a few here in Oklahoma, as well. House Speaker Charles McCall said that the House is working with state health officials to try to come up with plans and alternatives for the legislative session. Speaker President Pro Tem Greg Treat’s spokesman said they, too, were reviewing various protocols and alternatives for the legislative session. Of course, there's a lot we don't know right now. We don't know how severe the pandemic will be when lawmakers return to the Capitol and what kind of protections might need to be in place. But we saw during the spring that both the House and the Senate are willing to take steps to protect their members as well as the public.
Dick Pryor: With the number of coronavirus cases going up dramatically, Governor Kevin Stitt issued a new executive order requiring spacing of tables in restaurants, closure of restaurants and bars at 11:00 p.m., and mandating that state employees wear masks in state government buildings. And then he and Commissioner of Health, Dr. Lance Frye, suggested what might come next if cases continue to rise. And that's an executive order restricting elective surgeries. Why would they go there next?
Shawn Ashley: Well, really that would continue to ensure the availability of beds and hospital staff to treat COVID-19 patients who are hospitalized. Now, I will point out Governor Stitt indicated that if he goes that direction, the executive order, which Dr. Frye said has already been drafted, would be a bit more nuanced than what we saw in the spring when some concern was raised that medically necessary surgeries were postponed. These were surgeries that were not necessarily emergencies, but they were important to the patients and the doctors involved.
Dick Pryor: These are confusing times for a lot of people. And so, an elective surgery ban or bar closure mandate would be enforceable, but requiring people to wear a mask, through executive order, as the governor has consistently said, is not enforceable? Has the Stitt administration provided any guidance on the rationale to justify that contradiction?
Shawn Ashley: They really haven't. Stitt and other officials, such as Dr. Frye, have talked about how they wanted to be transparent during this pandemic. And in terms of numbers, they have been. They've given us a lot of numbers, but what we have not seen is the rationale or the reasoning for some of the steps which they have taken. When you talk about a mask mandate and its enforceability, is that an issue of constitutional or statutory concern or are there other factors that come into play? And we just don't know the answer to that.
Dick Pryor: It's complicated. Thanks, Shawn.
Shawn Ashley: You're very welcome.
Dick Pryor: Have a safe Thanksgiving. And that's Capitol Insider. If you have questions e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact us 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.