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Oklahoma Legislature met only 36 days this session, leaving some work undone

Oklahoma Legislature met only 36 days this session, leaving some work undone


Representatives enter the chamber to vote during a special session of the House of Representatives at the state Capitol in Oklahoma City on April 6. Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman

This spring’s truncated legislative schedule means a lot of things that lawmakers, lobbyists and Gov. Kevin Stitt wanted done didn’t happen and probably won’t.

No criminal justice reform. No medical billing reform. No agency consolidation. No civil service reform. No additional public money for private schools.

All of those were hot issues when the session began on Feb. 3. All faded from view as the coronavirus epidemic descended on Oklahoma and the world and drove the economy into hiding.

Oklahoma’s 57th Legislature has met just 36 days this session — the fewest in memory and maybe ever. Because of the COVID-19 epidemic, it met just one day between March 17 and May 4. The Legislature adjourned Friday after two weeks of furious lawmaking, much of it not to Stitt’s liking.

Technically, legislators still have two weeks in which to legislate, but leadership has made it clear the only thing that would bring the House and Senate back to the Capitol are veto overrides.

There were some accomplishments. The biggest was passing a budget — over Stitt’s veto — that avoids draconian cuts despite collapsing tax revenue. Funding mechanisms for Stitt’s version of expanded Medicaid were put in place.

Significant virtual charter school legislation was sent to the governor, as was the annual legislation to perhaps make guns a little easier to hold onto and abortions a little harder to get.

Here’s an overview of some things apparently left on the cutting room floor:

Senate Bill 1102: This bill started out in the Senate as a domestic abuse measure, but as mayors began closing churches because of COVID-19 and Stitt stopped answering questions about how he was spending federal pandemic dollars, state Rep. Kevin West, R-Moore, turned it into a rewrite of the Catastrophic Health Emergency Powers Act.

SB 1102 would have sharply curtailed local governments’ ability to control responses to public health emergencies and given the Legislature more say in the state’s handling of such situations. Mayors would no longer have been able to impose quarantine rules more stringent than the state’s.

The bill narrowly passed the House on the next-to-last day before adjournment but was not taken up by the Senate.

House Bill 4064: Stitt began the session by advocating for consolidation of the Health Department, the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, and the Oklahoma Health Care Authority.

The Health Department pretty quickly fell out of that equation, but a merger of Mental Health and the OHCA — the state’s Medicaid administrator — looked like it might happen when HB 4064 went through the House 61-28 on March 11.

Mental health professionals were adamantly opposed to the measure, though, and the Senate has shown no interest. It appears to be dead.

House Bill 3094: This was the vehicle for another change promoted in Stitt’s State of the State address — phasing out the merit protection program for state employees.

Originally established to protect employees — and taxpayers — from cronyism and patronage, the system has grown rigid and some say unworkable over the decades. HB 3094 would have replaced the current setup with a dispute resolution framework.

The bill passed the House 92-1 on March 10 but went nowhere in the Senate.

Senate Bill 407: This bill would have expanded so-called private school “opportunity scholarships” — which opponents call vouchers by another name — funded in part by tax credits to donors.

The program is highly controversial among public school advocates, and Stitt was roundly criticized when he suggested using some of the state’s COVID-19 education relief money for it.

SB 407 probably would have had a tough time this year even without the shortened schedule. It passed the Senate only 27-20 with the title off — meaning it would have to survive at least one more Senate vote — and faced very uncertain prospects in the House.

Senate Bill 1775: This originally fulfilled Stitt’s ambition to merge the Department of Transportation and the Turnpike Authority, but by the time the Senate voted for it 47-0 on March 11, all it did was ask them to cooperate whenever possible.

Stitt isn’t the first and probably won’t be the last governor to try to combine the two, but the legal and financial obstacles are many.

The House has not taken up the measure.

School funding: Additional money for classrooms and additional teachers had some support, but flattening state revenue made that unlikely even before COVID-19 hit. Schools did get a little help on the last day of the session when the House passed and sent to the governor HB 3964, which would allow districts to tap carryover funds without being penalized by the state funding formula.

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Barbara Hoberock contributed to this story.

Randy Krehbiel 918-581-8365


Twitter: @rkrehbiel

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