Capitol Insider: Lawmakers call special session to address spending federal ARPA dollars
In the waning days of the 2022 regular Oklahoma Legislative Session, Oklahoma lawmakers entered into a special session to consider how to spend almost two billion dollars in federal money the state has received under the American Rescue Plan Act.
Dick Pryor: This is Capitol Insider - taking you inside politics, policy, and government in Oklahoma. I'm Dick Pryor with Quorum Call publisher Shawn Ashley, who is at the state Capitol where there have been protests this afternoon. Legislators, Shawn, have been working feverishly the last few days to bring this year's legislative session to a close. By law, the legislature must conclude the regular session by the last Friday in May, which is May 27th. They waited very late to loop in the governor's office and roll out general appropriation bills that implement the budget for next fiscal year. What's been the reaction to the budget plan?
Shawn Ashley: Well, from the governor's office, we have not heard any reaction to the specific proposals within the budget itself. The reaction we have heard from the governor's office has been about the process and what we were told is that the governor himself was not involved in the process until around May 16th. Now, that's about a week before they rolled out the budget bills and the public and other members of the legislature actually got to see what was being proposed in the budget and would be put before lawmakers later in the week.
Dick Pryor: The House and Senate are playing a high stakes game of procedural manipulation to close out the session, which includes opening a special session to deal with the disbursement of almost $2 billion in federal ARPA funding. What are legislators doing to take control of that process?
Shawn Ashley: Lawmakers have passed two bills - one which creates a new fund in which to put the ARCA money, and another which transfers the ARPA money to that fund. Those bills have made it through both chambers of the legislature and are going to Governor Stitt for his consideration. Also on Thursday and Friday, lawmakers took up the first bills which will appropriate money from that fund. Now, these are projects that have gone through the Joint Committee on Pandemic Relief and were recommended to the governor for his consideration. Instead, they are being run through this process, and this process is what lawmakers intend to use into the summer and perhaps into the fall as they take over, as you said, the appropriation of the ARPA money.
Dick Pryor: Why have lawmakers taken this route? What are they concerned about?
Shawn Ashley: Well, the process of accepting and reviewing applications for the ARPA money began back in October and several thousand applications or proposals have been put forth for the committee and those total more than $10 billion, substantially more money than is available. The Joint Committee on Pandemic Relief has already reviewed a number of those proposals and made recommendations to the governor for possible approval. However, the governor had only approved two of those projects totaling approximately $10 million. There were more than $100 million of other projects which had been recommended to the governor that he had not taken action on. During a press conference earlier in the week, Senate Majority Floor Leader Greg McCourtney was asked how far behind Oklahoma was compared to some of the other states, and he said Oklahoma was significantly behind. It's worth noting that a number of other states, nearly 40, are using their appropriations process or a hybrid of their appropriations process in executive decision making in order to disperse their ARPA funds. So, Oklahoma is joining the majority of other states in how they're handling this money.
Dick Pryor: And Shawn, we continue to hear the sounds of protest behind you at the Capitol. Again, the protests are about abortion bills. Oklahoma is again in the national news for passing another highly restrictive anti-abortion bill, which Governor Kevin Stitt has pledged to sign. The latest bill essentially prohibits abortion from the moment of fertilization and allows for civil lawsuits against anyone who performs or assists a pregnant person to get an abortion – like the Texas bounty law. As a practical matter, how do lawmakers expect this bill to be enforced?
Shawn Ashley: Well, I think as a practical matter, may be the key word there, because what we're hearing from abortion providers is that once the bill is signed into law by Governor Kevin Stitt, that most abortion providers intend to stop offering abortions in the state of Oklahoma. The risk is simply too great that they will face a number of civil lawsuits from individuals and groups in the state for providing an abortion.
Dick Pryor: Lawmakers will be working into the night this evening and they will come back next week.
Shawn Ashley: That's right. Lawmakers intend to return to the Capitol on Thursday and Friday to deal with special session issues, moving those bills through the process that will be used later in the summer or in the fall to fund those projects that are approved by the Joint Committee on Pandemic Relief. It's possible, too, that they could take up overriding any vetoes which the governor issues between now and then.
Shawn Ashley: We'll have an update on the legislature's progress in Monday morning’s Capitol Insider. Thanks, Shawn.
Shawn Ashley: You're very welcome.
Dick Pryor: And for more information, go to quorum.call.online. You can find audio and transcripts at kgou.org. Until next time, with Shawn Ashley, I'm Dick Pryor.