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Capitol Insider: Approval of anti-abortion bill highlights unpredictability of legislative process

Oklahoma State Capitol Building
Claire Donnelly

Oklahoma made national news this week with passage of one of the most restrictive and punitive anti-abortion bills in the nation, which Governor Kevin Stitt is expected to sign. The bill's progress to final passage caught some lawmakers and political insiders by surprise.


Dick Pryor: This is Capitol Insider, your weekly look inside Oklahoma politics, policy and government. I'm Dick Pryor with Quorum Call publisher Shawn Ashley. Shawn, the biggest story out of the state Capitol in the last few days has been passage of Senate Bill 612, which virtually prohibits abortions in the state and makes performing an abortion a crime punishable by a fine of up to $100,000, a prison sentence of up to 10 years or both. This bill popped up on the House agenda last Monday and passed the next day. That caught a lot of people by surprise. What happened?

Dick Pryor: Well, Senate Bill 612, like Senate Bill 2, the bill banning transgender athletes from competing in girls’ sports that Governor Stitt signed, is a carryover bill from 2021. Now, it passed the Senate March 10th of that year and was sent to the House, and the House Public Health Committee gave it a do pass recommendation to the full House on April 7th, 2021, 364 days before it was taken up by the House. Since this bill was not heard in 2021, it's been available for consideration since the Legislature reconvened in February. House Minority Leader Emily Virgin noted the bill was not taken up until abortion rights supporters were scheduled to rally at the Capitol, and she suggested it was put up for a vote on that day to distract those advocates from their efforts and to draw attention away from what they were doing.

Dick Pryor: The substance of the bill aside, what does the journey of SB 612 illustrate about the unpredictability of the legislative process in Oklahoma and just how difficult it is to follow what's going on?

Shawn Ashley: That's a really good question. I'd like to tell people that if you understand Schoolhouse Rock’s “how a bill becomes law,” you have a pretty good understanding of the legislative process. Now that's true until it's not. Legislatures are two years in length, a first session in an odd numbered year and a second session in an even numbered year. Bills that do not make it all the way through the legislative process in the first session resume their track at the place they stopped during the first session. And that's what happened here, and that's a result the provisions in the Oklahoma Constitution, as well as House, Senate and joint rules.

Dick Pryor: State senators Zack Taylor and James Leewright and state representatives Merelyn Bell, Sheila Dills and Denise Brewer have recently announced they are not running again. Candidate filing begins Wednesday, and it looks like there may be a lot of open legislative seats up for the taking.

Shawn Ashley: All 101 House seats and the 24 even numbered districts in the Senate are up for grabs. Now, six of the House seats and four of the Senate seats will not have an incumbent running because of term limits. And because of those announcements you mentioned three more House seats and two Senate seats also will not have incumbents seeking reelection. There's also a vacancy in the House to be filled, so we're looking at more than a dozen seats that will be open. And then there may be some who have decided not to seek reelection but have not yet made that decision public and simply won't file during the filing period. So that makes for some interesting primaries in a general election.

Dick Pryor: That's a lot of churn. Filings for statewide and federal offices also bear watching.

Shawn Ashley: They certainly do. State Treasurer Randy McDaniel has announced he will not seek reelection, so that seat will be open as well. And Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister is term limited, so she will not be seeking reelection to that post. She has, however, changed parties from Republican to Democrat and will run for governor, potentially setting up a contest with Governor Kevin Stitt in November. But he, too, will have a number of primary challenges coming from within his own party. On the federal side. U.S. Senator Jim Inhofe is not seeking reelection, setting off a scramble for that seat. One of the candidates is Second District Congressman Markwayne Mullin, so that seat is open. Plus, we have the redrawn congressional districts, which could produce some interesting candidates there as well.

Dick Pryor: What's on the legislative agenda in the week ahead

Shawn Ashley: Thursday is the deadline for most bills to be heard in a committee of the opposite chamber. House bills in Senate committees and Senate bills in House committees, so members will be working to get their bills heard in those committees. Now, this deadline does not apply to the bills that were assigned to the House Appropriations and Budget Committee. They have until April 22nd to be heard in that committee, so members will be either focusing on an upcoming committee meeting or one the following week to have those bills heard. During that time members will have already begun working on the floor to consider legislation.

Dick Pryor: The pace is picking up. Thanks, Shawn.

Shawn Ashley: You're very welcome.

Dick Pryor: We'd like to hear from you. Email your questions to news@kgou.org or contact us on Twitter @kgounews and @QuorumCallShawn. 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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