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Capitol Insider: State Leaders Watch As Coronavirus Spikes In Oklahoma

Governor Kevin Stitt (R) Oklahoma
Oklahoma Watch
Governor Kevin Stitt speaks to Oklahoma Watch reporter Paul Monies at the Capitol on March 26, 2019. Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch

Governor Kevin Stitt has announced he will not issue an emergency order as coronavirus cases in Oklahoma tick upward. KGOU's Dick Pryor and eCapitol's Shawn Ashley discuss that story and the appointment of a new attorney general in Capitol Insider.


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, coronavirus cases are surging across the United States almost exclusively among the unvaccinated. There are now significant surges in Missouri, Texas and Arkansas. And predictably, cases are going up in Oklahoma. What is the State Health Department doing to increase the state's vaccination rate?

Shawn Ashley: The State Department of Health continues to report the number of new cases, hospitalizations and a limited amount of other data most weekdays and provide some additional information in a weekly epidemiological report each Wednesday. But in terms of actively encouraging more Oklahomans to get the vaccine, they don't seem to be doing too much.

Dick Pryor: Are they doing any kind of public relations to counter disinformation about vaccines or to encourage people to consider vaccines?

Shawn Ashley: You know, not really. In those instances when health department officials speak to the public or the media, they do stress the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines. But in the case of the media, for example, their last briefing with us was July 16th.

Dick Pryor: Yeah, it was. In late May, Governor Stitt issued an executive order preventing state agencies from requiring masks in their facilities. He's consistently avoided mask mandates and vaccination and proof of vaccination requirements. But some governors, including Republicans, are now becoming more urgently vocal about the need for their residents to get vaccinated. Is the Stitt administration doing anything to address the COVID spike in Oklahoma?

Shawn Ashley: No. In fact, it had been a while since we had heard from the governor publicly about COVID-19. But Friday morning the governor was asked at a public event whether he planned to declare a state of emergency in light of the surge of cases. And he said he did not. The governor did point out that he was vaccinated 116 days ago and that he was leading by example. Stitt said, “I trust Oklahomans.” And he added, “I encourage Oklahomans to make that decision about their health care with their physicians or doctors.”

Dick Pryor: All right. The governor has announced his pick to replace Mike Hunter as attorney general. Tell us about John O'Connor and why he rose to the top of the list of candidates.

Shawn Ashley: O'Connor is a Tulsa attorney with 40 years of legal experience, primarily in civil litigation. He served as an outside counsel for at least two state agencies, the Oklahoma Insurance Department and the State Department of Education. He's also served over the years on a number of state agency boards and commissions. Stitt said Friday it was important for him to find someone who was a highly competent lawyer and someone he said with high moral character who will do the right things for the right reasons and never for personal gain. As the state's top law enforcement, Stitt added, we needed someone willing to fight and defend what is best for all four million Oklahomans. Stitt also noted he had known O'Connor for 20 years and said he was a mentor for the governor when he ran his own business in Tulsa. He also pointed out that O'Connor had served as the state liaison for the National Prayer Breakfast and Stitt noted it was on one of those trips that he felt the call to run for governor.

Dick Pryor: Governor Stitt has filed a lawsuit against the Department of Interior to prevent the federal agency from expanding the reach of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma. What is Governor Stitt concerned about and what is he trying to accomplish through this lawsuit?

Shawn Ashley: Well, on the surface, if you will, the question is who will regulate surface mining in eastern Oklahoma - the state or the federal government? But the question’s really bigger than that. The state is regulated surface mining there for some 30 years under the terms of a federal law. The same principle applies in a number of other areas, like environmental regulation, transportation funding, potentially education and some other areas. So, if federal agencies can use the McGirt decision to undo what's being done in surface mining, the states concerned it could do that in other areas as well.

Dick Pryor: At the press conference to introduce him to the public, did John O'Connor say anything about McGirt?

Shawn Ashley: He was critical of the major decision suggesting the U.S. Supreme Court either got it wrong or that its opinion was written too broadly so that other issues like surface mining and perhaps even taxation could be affected.

Dick Pryor: There's a lot more to come on that. Thanks, Shawn.

Shawn Ashley: You're very welcome.

Dick Pryor: And that's Capitol Insider. If you have questions, e-mail us at news@kgou.org 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.

Dick Pryor has more than 25 years of experience in public service media, having previously served as deputy director, managing editor, news manager, news anchor and host for OETA, Oklahoma’s statewide public TV network. He was named general manager of KGOU Radio in November, 2016.
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