As the 2020 session heads toward a Spring Break-shortened week, concerns are rising about the COVID-19 outbreak. Governor Kevin Stitt announced the state of Oklahoma's initial approach and House and Senate leaders are considering contingency plans. eCapitol news director Shawn Ashley discusses this rapidly-moving story with KGOU's Dick Pryor.
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, Governor Kevin Stitt has laid out a framework for the state's response to the novel coronavirus through issuance of an executive order. What exactly is the administration's approach?
Shawn Ashley: Well, that executive order outlines three things that he's asking state agencies to do. One, is to take steps to protect vulnerable populations, including limiting access to facilities such as veterans' centers, long-term care facilities, adult daycare centers and correctional facilities. And I understand some of those steps are already being taken, particularly at veterans' centers, which deal with some of the older population that are more susceptible to these problems.
He's also authorizing agency purchases to fully prepare for a potential outbreak in the state. And I think that's very important in this executive order, because what the governor seemed to be saying in a press conference and then in this order is that the height of the problem has not yet hit. What we're looking toward is that potential future outbreak in the state. And then, his final recommendation was to follow the guidance of the Health Department and other health officials. What has not been done like has been done in some other states is the formal declaration of an emergency. So they still have that in their pocket if they need it in order to take additional steps.
Dick Pryor: How has concern about this outbreak affected the way work is being done at the Capitol?
Shawn Ashley: Well, on one hand, we're really not seeing any impact yet. What we heard from House Speaker Charles McCall and Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat is they are taking these concerns into consideration in game planning, figuring out what they might do in the event something does happen that would necessitate steps being taken at the Capitol, whether that be limiting public access or perhaps even suspending the legislative session. It was kind of funny on the House, on the Senate floor excuse me, that Senate President Pro Tem Treat asked all the senators to sign up for the Senate's internal text messaging system. He said some of them hadn't yet. And that provides them information about whether situations or health related issues where the Capitol might be closed or access limited.
Dick Pryor: There's a lot of interaction at the Capitol, though. A lot of groups come in, there's a lot of handshaking, there's a lot of close contact. And so “community spread” has got to be a concern.
Shawn Ashley: Yeah, we actually saw that issue come up Thursday on the Senate floor when President Pro Tem Treat told members they would no longer be shaking the page's hands. The high school students who come to the Capitol for a week to assist members and in various task, and on Thursdays they're introduced and each member goes by and shakes each of their hands. They didn't do that. They simply applauded them. Treat also said they would be looking at how they deal with entourages. These are groups of people who come onto the floor for recognition, for some special achievement. They, too, usually have their hands shaken by every member of the Senate. But I don't think we'll be seeing that going forward.
Dick Pryor: In other news at the Capitol, Thursday was a legislative deadline. What's the bill count now?
Shawn Ashley: Well, after tens of hours on the floor the last several days, it looks like at least 300 bills of the nearly 13-hundred or so that were alive have fallen by the wayside. That means they have about a thousand to work through as they work toward the end of the legislative session in May.
Dick Pryor: One bill that advanced will help retirees in six of the state's pension plans. It passed the House 99 to nothing.
Shawn Ashley: That's right. What it does is give a 2 percent to 4 percent cost of living adjustment for retirees in those programs. It has been nearly 12 years since retirees have seen an increase in their retirement benefits and they have been pushing for this for some time.
Dick Pryor: The state of Oklahoma has submitted its plan for Medicaid expansion. The Senate passed a bill outlining how that would work. What do they recommend?
Shawn Ashley: Well, it's rather interesting. Senate Bill 1219 calls for the creation of a state health care exchange and insurance exchange in which those new members of the Medicaid population, those 19 years old to 64 years old, up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, would participate. Now, that's a very small group in the grand scheme of things, up to maybe only 200,000 Oklahomans. So what that exchange would also include are those people who currently participate in the Insure Oklahoma plan, which is a plan that provides insurance coverages to businesses and to individuals of small employers on the low- income side and also state employees. So they're trying to spread out that risk that's associated with health care costs over a much larger population. That bill passed the Senate. It now goes to the House for further consideration.
Dick Pryor: All right, Shawn, thanks.
Shawn Ashley: You're very welcome.
Dick Pryor: That's Capitol Insider. If you have questions, email us at news@KGOU.ORG or contact us on Twitter @KGOUnews. You can also find us online at KGOU.ORG or ECAPITOL.NET. Until next time, with Shawn Ashley, I’m Dick Pryor.