The most unusual legislative session in the history of Oklahoma is now over. Legislators welcomed Sine Die Adjournment at 5:00 p.m. on Friday, May 29, although they had actually finished their work one week before. By law, the legislature must end the regular session by 5:00 p.m. on the last Friday in May, which they did, but this year the gavel fell without lawmakers in their chambers. KGOU's Dick Pryor and eCapitol's Shawn Ashley look back at the session that will always be defined by COVID-19.
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 passed a resolution allowing for Sine Die adjournment at 5:00 p.m. on Friday, the last Friday of May. This was a session like none we've ever seen before. It was surreal.
Shawn Ashley: There's no doubt about that. The legislative session began as normal in February, but in mid-March it was suspended as a result of COVID-19. That came after a member of Senate staff tested positive for the disease, and the general concern was raised nationwide about the spread of the disease. In the following weeks two House staff members would come down with COVID-19, a member of the House, as well as a member of the Senate. So, it was clearly within the Capitol. But lawmakers returned on April 6th to do two things. One, was to affirm Governor Kevin Stitt’s declaration of a health emergency. The other, was to pass three bills related to the current fiscal year's budget and avoid budget cuts.
They then took another month off and did not return until May 4th, where they met for two weeks and passed more than 150 pieces of legislation, including the fiscal year 2021 budget. They then returned again on May 22nd to override six of the governor's total 19 vetoes this legislative session. But what was most amazing was that April 6th session where you saw members on the floor in masks, some wearing gloves and voting in waves. It was unlike anything anyone has recently seen in the Oklahoma legislature.
Dick Pryor: The session was definitely disjointed. So, what did lawmakers actually get done? Of course, the budget, but under these highly unusual circumstances.
Shawn Ashley: Well, in the end, lawmakers put nearly 180 pieces of legislation on Governor Stitt’s desk. Now, that's substantially less than the 535 bills which were sent to the governor during the 2019 legislative session. When lawmakers came back to the Capitol, they indicated a lot of their work would focus on COVID-19-related measures and three bills granting limited civil liability immunity to businesses, individuals and manufacturers from lawsuits were passed. But at the same time, they also took up some other measures, like the Anti-Red Flag Act, as well as a measure related to abortions and allowing those who have abortion procedures to sue the physicians involved if they believe they were misled in that process.
Dick Pryor: There's a statewide vote on a state question that would expand Medicaid eligibility coming on June 30th. The governor vetoed the bill that would have funded his own SoonerCare 2.0 plan. Where does Medicaid expansion stand now?
Shawn Ashley: That's really a more than 100 million-dollar question right now. Stitt vetoed Senate Bill 1046, saying it would not fully fund his SoonerCare 2.0 program and what funding it did provide was only good for one year. Legislative leaders disagree with that. And House Speaker Charles McCall said that they gave the governor exactly what he had been asking for. Right now, the Oklahoma Health Care Authority is talking with federal officials about what this means for SoonerCare 2.0 and the waivers which they have submitted to the federal government that are currently being considered.
Dick Pryor: Unemployment benefit claims are at a historically high level, almost 500,000. And amid all of that, there's been a change of leadership at the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission. What is going on at OESC?
Shawn Ashley: That's a very interesting question. The former executive director, Robin Roberson, resigned May 22nd. Now, the commission had met in executive session and apparently discussed the idea of possibly replacing her. Roberson told Tyler Talley at eCapitol rather than delay the process, she would just go ahead and resign so they could begin working toward selecting a new leader for the agency. On Wednesday, the commission named Shelley Zumwalt its interim director. Zumwalt comes from the Office of Management and Enterprise Services, which the agency and the commission itself are now working more closely with. So, it seems they were looking for a good fit in a number of changes that are being implemented at the agency.
Dick Pryor: Phase Three of the governor's Open Up and Recover Safely Plan kicks in on Monday. What will change?
Shawn Ashley: Now, businesses can begin to fully staff, although they are recommended to maintain social distancing and if appropriate, mask requirements. Summer camps can re-open and things can begin to move back toward normal. At the same time, however, hospitals are being urged to develop very controlled processes for visitation of patients within their facilities and visitation at nursing homes and long-term care centers are still being discouraged.
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. You can also find us online at kgou.org and ecapitol.net. Until next time, with Shawn Ashley, I’m Dick Pryor.