Oklahoma legislators return for special session to appropriate federal ARPA funding
It has taken a year, but Oklahoma lawmakers are close to finishing the process of appropriating $1.8 billion in pandemic relief funds received from the federal government.
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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 Sean Ashley. Shawn, Joint Committee on Pandemic Relief Funding appears to have completed its work so that the legislature can return in special session to approve the spending plan. How are they allocating the $1.8 billion in federal money?
Shawn Ashley: The joint committee recommended 44 projects Tuesday that total close to $1.2 billion. Now, that's on top of the ten projects recommended at the end of August that total just over $330 million. And they had already appropriated nearly $210 million during the 2022 regular session and during the second special session when it met in June. Some of the money is going to state agencies to expand facilities. Other funds will go to state agencies for grant programs, for municipalities, and in other cases, certain nonprofit organizations. And some money will pass through state agencies to specific nonprofit organizations that provide a variety of services, such as early childhood education, at risk youth services and mental health care, as well as to local arts organizations. Senate Joint Committee co-chair Roger Thompson, who also chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, reminded me after Tuesday's meeting that they began this process more than a year ago, hearing from state agencies, nonprofits and others about the needs they saw as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thompson said he believes the projects they have recommended will meet those needs.
Dick Pryor: What's the next step in the approval and appropriation process?
Shawn Ashley: Those recommendations are being turned into bills that lawmakers will consider when they return in the second special session Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. If approved, they go to Governor Stitt, who can sign them, veto them, or allow them to become law absent his signature. House Joint Committee co-chair Kevin Wallace, who also chairs the House Appropriations and Budget Committee, noted then the real work begins. State agencies will have to make sure they comply with federal law related to the funds, as well as the program requirements spelled out in the legislation appropriating the money. And if they're passing that money through to other nonprofits, they will have to monitor those nonprofits and make sure they're abiding by the agency rules and federal requirements.
Dick Pryor: The State Board of Education has approved the budget request from state superintendent Joy Hofmeister, which includes a $5,000 teacher pay raise. We know there is a teacher shortage in the state. Is the rationale behind the pay raise to encourage teachers to stay in the profession and in Oklahoma?
Shawn Ashley: Yes, it is. But really the argument is different than what we've heard in the past. Superintendent Hofmeister did note the last pay raise was in 2018 and other states have increased their teacher pay since then, pushing their salaries above Oklahoma's again. But she also noted two other factors. First, COVID-19. The pandemic had a negative effect on the teaching profession and caused some to leave it. Second, retirement. The outflow of teachers from the profession due to retirement compared to the inflow of new teachers has always been a close relationship. The 2018 pay raise caused some teachers to remain in the profession a while longer, but now they can see the impact of that pay raise in their retirement benefits and are choosing to leave the profession -further depleting the state's teacher corps.
Dick Pryor: Legalization of recreational marijuana will not be on the November general election ballot. Why not?
Shawn Ashley: State law outlines a step-by-step process for initiative petitions to put state questions on the ballot and the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled State Question 820 has not yet met all those statutory requirements necessary to make the general election ballot.
Dick Pryor: That decision came down on Wednesday, and as of Friday, the election is underway.
Shawn Ashley: That was one of the issues in the case. In an affidavit, State Election Board Secretary Paul Ziriax explained that state and federal law requires ballots for overseas and military voters to be mailed out 45 days before the election. That 45-day window opened Friday. So, the election essentially is under way.
Dick Pryor: All right. Thank you, Shawn.
Shawn Ashley: You're very welcome.
Dick Pryor: And that's Capitol Insider. If you have questions, e-mail them to email@example.com or contact us Twitter @kgounews and @QuorumCallShawn. Until next time, with Shawn Ashley, I'm Dick Pryor.