Republican legislative leaders are downplaying the move to wrest power from Gov. Kevin Stitt to distribute American Rescue Plan Act funds. But, it’s a big deal.
It signals the Legislature disagrees with how Stitt is handling the $1.87 billion in ARPA funds. The Legislature on Wednesday called itself into a special session and moved all but about $500,000 into a separate account.
Only six senators and 14 House members didn’t sign the special session petition.
This allows those funds to go through a more typical budgeting process using the Joint Committee on Pandemic Relief Funding established last year through an agreement between the governor, House Speaker and Senate President Pro Tem. That committee provides the structure for project applications and evaluations.
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It was developed after lawmakers got upset at being left out of decision-making with the first round of COVID-19 relief funds.
The framework involves working groups vetting the proposals and public hearings among the joint committee, which makes recommendations to the governor. More than 1,400 projects asking for $17.8 billion have been requested.
The structure hasn’t worked, according to state Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, the Senate Appropriations Committee chairman. So far, lawmakers have recommended $160 million worth of projects to Stitt. Only two had been approved.
“We believe we need to get the money out to the people,” Thompson said.
The Legislature on Thursday approved the first ARPA projects using this model. Senate Bill 1458 would give $55 million to 21 state colleges, universities and technology centers to increase nursing programs. It addresses a shortage made worse by the pandemic.
By keeping the special session open, the Legislature can override any veto Stitt makes on projects. That’s a strong statement.
In a press release, House Speaker Charles McCall backed the process and said the action “keeps that train on the track.” Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat’s said it was in the state’s best interest for the joint committee’s process to “run its full course.” Both danced around reasons why such a bold move was made. The Democrats didn’t pull punches.
“Today, the Legislature in a bipartisan fashion declared Gov. 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. Minority Leader Emily Virgin alluded to other financial controversies, such as the runaway contract with Swadley’s restaurants, federal investigation into the handling of relief funds for school supplies and purchase of hydroxochloroquine and the never-arriving PPE.
“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.”
Stitt released a statement saying he wanted projects with a “generational impact rather than piecemeal projects driven by special interests and lobbyists.”
Oklahoma needs a transparent and swift process to allocate these funds. The process allows for input and oversight, something we appreciate. We encourage the leaders to set aside ego and pet projects to get the work done.