The first week of 2021 was one of the most stunning weeks in American politics. Controversies over the presidential election, special elections in Georgia that shifted the balance of power in the U.S. Senate, Electoral College confirmation of a new administration in the White House and an unprecedented ransacking of the U.S. Capitol by a riotous mob made it an historic week for the ages. Through all the turmoil, legislators in Oklahoma remained focused on preparations for the legislative session that begins on February 1st. KGOU's Dick Pryor and eCapitol's Shawn Ashley discuss how state lawmakers plan to do their work in 2021.
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. While the world was listening to a phone conversation in which the president pressured an official from another state to change its election results and then watched in horror as a violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol disrupted the certification of the Electoral College vote, lawmakers in Oklahoma were going about the business of organizing for the start of the 2021 legislative session, all during a worsening pandemic. Yet, Shawn, things seemed remarkably normal at the state Capitol. What did legislators do during their organizational day to set the stage for the upcoming session?
Shawn Ashley: Well, probably the biggest thing was to elect their leaders for the upcoming session, and there was no surprise there. Representative Charles McCall, a Republican from Atoka, was elected for his third term as House speaker and Senator Greg Treat, a Republican from Oklahoma City, was elected to his third term as Senate president pro tem. The House and the Senate also approved their chambers’ rules for the legislative session, and those rules largely resemble the ones passed two years ago before the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Dick Pryor: How do legislative leaders plan to handle the first week of the session with everyone back at the Capitol?
Shawn Ashley: Well, they really haven't said. What we saw during organizational day was that House Democrats attempted to amend the House rules to include a mask mandate and permit virtual meetings, among other things, but those amendments were tabled. There's a provision in the Senate rules that allows Treat and Senate Minority Leader Kay Floyd to come to an agreement about what constitutes being present for a committee meeting or for a floor session for a member. And that would allow them potentially to have a virtual or remote voting process, much like they did during the 2020 session.
Dick Pryor: The deadline for pre-filing bills is less than two weeks away. This is typically the time when the pace of filing really picks up. How's it going so far?
Shawn Ashley: Well, that pace is picking up. The Senate now has filed more than 320 pieces of legislation for consideration and the House has filed around 30 bills so far. Now, that low number is not unusual for the House. Their pace really picks up the closer you get to the filing deadline. Keep in mind, lawmakers requested about 38-hundred pieces of legislation, though not all of those will be filed, but it will be a fairly significant number.
Dick Pryor: The Senate is starting to hear budget requests from state agencies. Shortly before Christmas, the state equalization board approved a revenue estimate for the upcoming fiscal year that makes eight and a half billion dollars available for appropriation, which is six hundred thirty-one million dollars more than was appropriated this year. But the picture is not as rosy as it sounds.
Shawn Ashley: That's right. One-point-one billion of that eight-point-five billion dollars is what is considered one-time money. That's money that they'll have to appropriate for FY2022, but they won't have to appropriate for FY2023. As in previous years, lawmakers have been really reluctant to fund ongoing programs, programs that need money year after year, with one-time funds. So that's going to tighten the belt a little bit. Additionally, of course, as we've talked about before, they have some additional cost, particularly the cost of Medicaid expansion to fund during this legislative session.
Dick Pryor: Yes, and that will be a big item. Will agencies need to prepare for cuts in appropriations?
Shawn Ashley: You know, we really don't know at this point. As agencies go through their budget hearings, part of what they'll be trying to do is to convince lawmakers that their budget items should be priorities in the fiscal year 2022 budget. So, there'll be a big focus on that effort. But in the end, it comes down to how lawmakers decide to write that final budget.
Dick Pryor: Shawn, the Oklahoma Department of Health announced a new online tool to facilitate scheduling of COVID-19 vaccinations. As of Friday, more than 200,000 people had registered with more than 100,000 eligible, b’sut the number of booked appointments is dramatically less. How is the state getting the word out?
Shawn Ashley: Thus far, they've really relied on us, the media, to get the word out to the public about the portal. In fact, earlier today I was looking at the State Department of Health main website and there's not a link to the portal from there. You have to go to their COVID-19 site in order to find it. Now, that website is vaccinate-dot-oklahoma-dot-gov, and there individuals will be asked to walk through a series of questions to determine which phase they belong in in order to receive the vaccination.
Dick Pryor: That’s vaccinate.oklahoma.gov. Thanks, Shawn.
Shawn Ashley: You're very welcome.
Dick Pryor: And that's Capitol Insider. If you have questions, e-mail us at email@example.com 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.