Governor Kevin Stitt moves forward with a plan to do a phased-in re-opening of private businesses in Oklahoma following several weeks of closure due to COVID-19. KGOU's Dick Pryor and eCapitol's Shawn Ashley discuss the plan and the latest developments in a dispute over new tribal gaming compacts.
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 Stitt has announced that certain businesses can reopen as long as they are following strict sanitation protocols. Now, there are a lot of questions accompanying that, including how to do it safely. Has the governor modified his emergency orders to provide guidance?
Shawn Ashley: Yes. In a press conference on Wednesday, the governor announced that personal care businesses could begin to open on Friday, April 24th. And then the following week, we could see additional businesses, including restaurants on May 1st, begin to open. But in order to do that, they all have to meet very specific sanitation and social distancing requirements. Restaurants, for example, will have to keep diners six feet apart. Personal care businesses will have to use, in some cases, mask and personal protection equipment and deal only with appointments and not have lobbies full of people waiting for haircuts in order to operate.
Dick Pryor: Some cities are following the governor's lead, but at least three prominent mayors in Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Norman are holding firm with not opening yet. What is the data the governor's office is focusing on to justify phasing in reopening?
Shawn Ashley: Now they're looking at a number of different data points, such as trends and hospitalizations, which have been trending downward since late March. The peak seemed to occur somewhere around March 30th. They're also looking at the overall trend. A seven-day trend, generally speaking, in total positive cases, which if you look at that data around April 6, seems to have been the height. And those numbers have been moving downward. The governor has been very careful to say if they see this data reverse itself, if we see an increase in hospitalizations or we see an increase in positive cases, they will quickly reevaluate and determine whether or not these businesses should be closed or some other action taken to help once again control the spread of COVID-19.
Dick Pryor: Another big story we're following, Governor Stitt has been on the receiving end of considerable criticism from various sources, including Speaker of the House, the Senate President Pro Tem, the Attorney General and many tribal leaders for unilaterally entering into gaming compacts with two tribes. What do they see as the problem with this approach?
Shawn Ashley: Most listeners will probably remember back in 2004 Oklahoma voters were asked to vote on the State Tribal Gaming Act, which allowed casino gaming to begin in the State of Oklahoma. Now, that Act sets out a model gaming compact that has a number of various requirements for gaming compacts to exist in Oklahoma. For example, the games that can be played and the exclusivity fees that the tribes will pay the state in these new compacts with the Otoe Missouria and the Comanche nations. Some of those requirements simply are ignored. Some of the rates are different, for example. And it also allows sports betting, which is currently not legal under state law. The Attorney General, as well as the House Speaker and the Senate President Pro Tem have said that, in effect, makes those compacts invalid.
Dick Pryor: So why has the governor done this and what is his rationale for doing it this way?
Shawn Ashley: Well, we've been talking about these discussions between the governor's office and tribal leaders since July when the governor announced that he wanted to renegotiate these compacts. And of course, right now they're in federal court over the issue of whether or not these compacts renew. Governor Stitt offered tribes an opportunity a couple of months ago to renegotiate new compacts if they wanted to do so. And these were two of the first tribes to move in that direction. Basically, it comes down to, they said, the opportunities that were presented in the new compacts. The rates, generally speaking, are lower than what are paid under the model gaming compact. And it also gives them greater opportunities for expansion that currently don't exist, as well as the opportunity to offer sports betting.
Dick Pryor: Shawn, the Tax Commission projects that FY21 revenues will be down about $1.3 billion. The Senate President Pro Tem questions that number. The legislature only has until the end of May to produce next year's state budget. That's not much time and it's a little late in the game to not have agreed upon revenue figures to work from. So how are budget writers going to resolve this?
Shawn Ashley: That's a really interesting question because first of all, it touches on the underlying elements of the budget-writing process every December and every February. We talk about the estimate that the Board of Equalization approves and then sometime in May, we get a budget that abides by those figures that were outlined in February. But this year is entirely different. We've seen oil prices crash and we've seen the negative economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. So legislative leaders acknowledge that the budget next year is not going to be the same. That was estimated back in February. And Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat said they were working in that direction already. But his concern is the 1.3 billion dollars may be too much of a revenue hit - that according to Senate estimates it's somewhere more in the area of $470 million. So he has tasked Senate Appropriations Chair Roger Thompson with talking to the Tax Commission and finding out what underlies those numbers. Keep in mind, the numbers given by the Tax Commission during Monday's Board of Equalization meeting are simply projections. They're not an official estimate. The legislature is not bound to use them and the governor is not bound to use them. And as you suggest, at some point they have to come up with an agreement on what that number should be.
Dick Pryor: A lot of work to do. What is on lawmakers' agenda in the week ahead?
Shawn Ashley: Officially, there's nothing on the agenda in the week to come, which has been the situation for the past several weeks after lawmakers adjourned to the call of the chair indefinitely. Decisions are being made about how to proceed with the remainder of the legislative session, which has to end no later than May 29th at 5:00 p.m. There's work to do on the budget, as we discussed, as well as policy bills that both the House and the Senate are trying to prioritize and figure out what needs to be considered before they finish the 2020 legislative session.
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.