The Oklahoma Legislature is required by law to finish each legislative session by the end of May. This year's work has been slowed due to COVID-19, but lawmakers and the governor are now making up for lost time. KGOU's Dick Pryor and eCapitol's Shawn Ashley discuss how they are moving quickly to complete "the people's business" on schedule.
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, the legislature returned to the Capitol on Monday and quickly moved on several issues. Lawmakers proved they can move at warp speed when they want to. Brief back story. On May 4th, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that voters could self-certify absentee ballots without a notary requirement. By May 7th, the House and Senate passed and the governor signed into law a bill that reinstates the notary requirement. Why did the majority in both houses and the governor think that that bill was necessary?
Shawn Ashley: Well, really, it came down to sort of two different issues in the chambers. In the House, there was a lot of concern about fraud - to make sure that the ballots being submitted actually belonged to a voter. In the Senate, that discussion was a little different. And it was about ballot verification and in particular, the fact that Oklahoma does not verify absentee ballot signatures when they're received by the County Election Board. Instead, that is the process that works on the front end with the notary. So, you were sort of looking at the same issue from two different angles. But ultimately, as you said, majorities in both chambers agreed, largely led by Republicans and approved Senate Bill 210 and Governor Kevin Stitt signed that bill on Thursday.
Dick Pryor: What does SB 210 do?
Shawn Ashley: Well, it really does two things. The first thing it does is to reinstate the notary requirement on mail-in absentee ballots. You'll have to go get your signature notarized if you're going to use an absentee ballot. But for the current election year, it does provide some exemptions to that. If we are in a state of emergency, as we currently are as a result of COVID-19, an individual can mail in a photocopy of one of the acceptable forms of I.D., such as your driver's license or your voter I.D. card when they submit their absentee ballot rather than having it notarized.
Dick Pryor: How were legislators able to move that bill so quickly?
Shawn Ashley: Well, that's really interesting, because that is going to happen many times between now and the end of the legislative session when lawmakers complete their work. The bill began in the House as a Senate bill that had previously been approved by the Senate. It was amended in the House and sent back to the Senate, which accepted the amendments from the House. And I know that sounds all very convoluted and complicated, but it is really the process that's going to be utilized through the remainder of the legislative session to pass any bills lawmakers believe are necessary to pass this year before they have to adjourn by May 29.
Dick Pryor: So, everything probably will go fast.
Shawn Ashley: Everything will move very, very quickly through the remainder of session.
Dick Pryor: In short order, lawmakers also passed and sent to the governor the general appropriations bill for next fiscal year. They were also working on several other (funding) bills. How does this all work together?
Shawn Ashley: Working together may be one of the big questions here, because this budget was put together by the House and the Senate without the involvement of the Governor's office. In years past, we've talked about that imaginary three-legged stool of the House, the Senate and the Governor's office. In this case, it appears that we may just have a tandem bicycle with the House and the Senate riding it and the governor trying to catch up. This budget proposes to spend 7.7 billion dollars. And as House Appropriations and Budget Chair Kevin Wallace pointed out, it is very creatively put together. It borrows money that would otherwise go to other funds in order to help support the spending. It also proposes a number of bond issues to help free up cash that previously had been dedicated to other purposes. And it does a lot of things in order to balance the budget where they thought they were going to be losing close to 1.4 billion dollars in the coming fiscal year.
Dick Pryor: And the situation, as we all know, is precarious. Figures are out showing the effect of COVID-19 on the state economy. Unemployment is way up, gross revenue collections are way down.
Shawn Ashley: Yes. Since the middle of March, more than 375,000 Oklahomans have submitted initial unemployment claims with the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission. They have been behind and making those payments, but they seem to be moving toward catching up. The state treasurer, Randy McDaniel, reported this week that gross revenue collections, the total revenue collected by the state in the month of April, was down one and a half billion dollars. And those collections normally foreshadow what direction general revenue fund collections will move when reported by the Office of Management and Enterprise Services later in the month. Already a revenue failure has been declared for the remainder of this fiscal year and it looks like these numbers bear out that's going to happen.
Dick Pryor: Thank you, Shawn.
Shawn Ashley: You're very welcome.
Dick Pryor: And, that’s Capitol Insider. If you have questions email us at email@example.com 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.