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Legislature moves to take control of state's federal COVID-19 relief funds

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OKLAHOMA CITY — Miffed at Gov. Kevin Stitt’s inaction, the Oklahoma Legislature essentially seized control of the state’s available American Rescue Plan Act funds on Wednesday for the purpose of expediting their distribution.

To do so, the Legislature announced Wednesday afternoon that it was calling itself into a special session and by evening had passed bills moving the $930 million in available ARPA funds into a special account.

The House and Senate briefly met separately in special session for formal reading and adoption of the call and other administrative chores. At least two special session bills — both shell bills — were queued up.

“We believe we need to get the money out to the people,” said state Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, the Senate Appropriations Committee chairman.

Thompson said lawmakers had recommended $160 million worth of projects to Stitt but that only two had been approved.

In a statement issued by his press office, Stitt said: “I greatly appreciate the Legislature’s commitment to work through the summer to distribute ARPA funds with full transparency. I expect comprehensive, strategic ideas that make a generational impact rather than piecemeal projects driven by special interests and lobbyists.”

Although the special session is for now concurrent with the regular session, the call indicates that it is likely to stretch intermittently through the summer.

That would allow the Legislature to allocate ARPA funds and override any Stitt vetoes.

It was not immediately clear how many lawmakers signed the special session call, but it required at least two-thirds of both House and Senate members.

Nevertheless, Republican leadership was reluctant to criticize Stitt directly. Instead, Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, and Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, instead cited a desire to follow through on the work done by a joint legislative committee that took public input and analyzed funding requests for months.

“Oklahoma established a strong process, driven by the public, to place the legislative and executive branches in a partnership to listen to the public’s wishes for ARPA dollars. This action simply keeps that train on track,” McCall said in announcing the special session.

“Ensuring the joint committee’s public-driven process can run its full course is in Oklahoma’s best interest,” said Treat. “A concurrent session allows for a comprehensive, strategic plan to be enacted through appropriations after a full vetting of submissions and public discussion of how to best deploy these resources.”

Democrats, at least in the House, were not as shy about attacking Stitt — or suggesting that the move was about more than the governor’s slow pace for approving ARPA disbursements.

“Throughout the last month, media reports have shown that the Stitt administration is not up to the task of ensuring taxpayer money is spent properly,” said Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman. “It is apparent that the governor’s own safeguards have not been effective enough to ensure his Cabinet members and appointees do their job to protect tax dollars.”

This was in reference to questions arising from the administration’s handling of other COVID-19 relief funds and an overhaul of state park restaurants.

“Today, the Legislature in a bipartisan fashion declared Governor Kevin Stitt can’t be trusted and is unfit to lead Oklahoma during this crucial time in our state’s history,” said Rep. Monroe Nichols, D-Tulsa.

“I hope all Oklahomans are taking note of the fact that the Republican supermajorities in the House and Senate have sent a clear signal that Governor Stitt shouldn’t be responsible for Oklahoma tax dollars,” Nichols said.

Oklahoma was allocated a total of $1.87 billion in ARPA funds, of which half have been received. All but about $500,000 of that portion was transferred to the fund created Wednesday.

Legislators were upset by their minimal role in dispersal of earlier COVID-19 relief funds and worked out an agreement with Stitt to vet applications and make recommendations for the governor’s approval.

It is unclear whether Stitt has delayed that approval because he disagrees with the recommendations or for another reason.

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