Oklahoma lawmakers return to Capitol for two special sessions
Oklahoma legislators called a special session to approve legislation authorizing expenditures of federal funding for projects under the American Rescue Plan Act. In late May, Governor Kevin Stitt called another special session to consider tax cuts. In the week ahead, the Oklahoma capitol will see a rarity - two special sessions going at the same time.
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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. Shawn, the last several days have felt like the calm before the storm as lawmakers prepare to return to the capitol for the start of the special session called by Governor Stitt to address the grocery sales tax and individual income tax rate. The special session starts Monday. Is there a storm brewing?
Shawn Ashley: I think so. The question is just how bad is it going to be? House Speaker Charles McCall and Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat point out they passed bills that repealed the grocery sales tax and reduced the individual income tax, but they did not make it into the final budget agreement. The final budget agreement included a repeal of the motor vehicle sales tax and $75 rebates for Oklahoma taxpayers - proposals that Governor Stitt vetoed. So, what's their new plan? From the people I've been talking to, not only is there no new plan, but the sides have not even begun working on a new proposal that would make both of them happy. What we saw at the end of the regular session was a pretty severe storm, particularly pretty severe rhetoric. And it looks like that might be the case again.
Dick Pryor: We'll be listening for that. The special session called by the legislature to consider a series of projects to be funded through federal money from the American Rescue Plan Act will also meet Monday. What are the projects they're focusing on?
Shawn Ashley: Well, there are six projects that were approved by the Joint Committee on Pandemic Relief Funding. This includes $15 million to complete the new Northeastern State University School of Optometry. That will be coupled with $18 million that the university has raised on its own. There's $8.8 million in projects addressing the nursing workforce shortage through the career tech center system. That will be combined with previous ARPA allotments of $64 million, ultimately to create an additional 2500 licensed and trained health care workers within the state over five years. There will also be $250,000 for the Health Workforce Training Commission to administer those nursing workforce programs.
Twenty-five million will go to create a grant pool for nonprofits that were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and that money will be administered by the Department of Commerce. Thirty-nine point four million dollars will be used to complete the Oklahoma Children's Hospital Behavioral Health Center to address the need for pediatric behavioral health services in Oklahoma. And finally, $500,000 will be used to provide preliminary administrative support to open the state broadband office, which is working to expand broadband internet accessibility throughout the state. Now, each one of these bills has to be passed in the House and the Senate and go to Governor Stitt, who will then have the final say on whether they get funded.
Dick Pryor: There's a lot there and that's just the start of the ARPA projects. In 2018, the Legislature expanded the Governor's authority to direct the Tourism and Recreation Department. It made the commission overseeing the department advisory only and allowed the governor to select the executive director of the agency. Now, Senate Appropriations Chair Roger Thompson is drafting legislation to change that. He says he's responding to findings of questionable spending by the tourism department.
Shawn Ashley: Senator Thompson points specifically to the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency or LOFT report that was presented at the end of March. Now, LOFT’s findings regarding overspending associated with the Swadley’s Barbecue contract have gotten most of the attention, but the report also raised concerns about other spending practices at the department, such as whether expenditures were aligned with the desires of park visitors. Thompson said, “the commission hasn't even really functioned as an advisory board as has been intended, and the legislation I'm writing will put guardrails back in place, restore the oversight powers of the commission, and help ensure greater scrutiny of the use of public resources.”
Dick Pryor: Shawn, even with the two special sessions underway, lawmakers are already looking ahead to the next regular session in 2023 with the filing of interim studies. The first one has been filed.
Shawn Ashley: Lawmakers have until June 24th to submit their interim study requests. Senate requests will be approved about a week later and House requests later in July. Lawmakers held more than 100 interim studies in 2021, but they typically request fewer interim studies in even numbered years. Election years.
Dick Pryor: Election years. Some fascinating days ahead. Thanks, Shawn.
Shawn Ashley: You're very welcome.
Dick Pryor: If you have questions, email them to email@example.com or contact us on Twitter @kgounews or @QuorumCallShawn. Until next time with Shawn Ashley, I'm Dick Pryor.