Updated 2/24/2021

House broadens public school transfer policies, changes school funding formula

Following the policy priorities of Gov. Kevin Stitt, the Oklahoma House of Representatives approved two controversial bills Feb. 24 to broaden public school transfer policies and change the state school funding formula.

House Bill 2074, the school choice bill, would allow students to transfer between any public school district at any time with some exceptions.

And House Bill 2078 makes changes to the school funding formula to account for what Stitt called “ghost students” during his State of the State speech earlier this year.

Currently, over 55,000 public school students are double counted in the state’s funding formula as school districts base future financial estimates on previous enrollment numbers.

Proponents for the changes said they want to support parental choice and only give school districts funding for students who are actually enrolled.

“If a school has more students, it gets more money. If a school has less students, it has less money,” said Rep. Kyle Hilbert, R-Depew, adding that revenue per student would go up under the changes.

But other lawmakers, mostly Democrats, said they worried about inequalities.

They pointed to students who may not have the resources to drive to a better school district and fears that rural schools may see less funding. They also mentioned a lack of broad support by educators.

“If our solution to a bad zip code is to tell kids they can go to a different zip code, we’re not fixing the bad zip code,” said Rep. Forrest Bennett, D-Oklahoma City. “And not every kid is going to be able to get out of that district.”

Both bills passed off the House floor with a large majority of Republicans voting in favor. The bills now head to the Senate.

-Kayla Branch

Committee passes bill allowing evictions during health emergencies

The House Business and Commerce Committee approved a bill Wednesday that would stop courts from preventing evictions for nonpayment of rent during a catastrophic health emergency. 

Rep. Tom Gann, R-Inola, authored House Bill 1564 and told the committee he hopes the move will protect landlords who have gone months without being able to collect rent from tenants who are protected under the federal eviction moratorium. 

Representatives supporting the bill said they believed the government should “stay out of the way at all costs” when it comes to private businesses, and they encouraged any individuals who are struggling to pay rent to apply for assistance programs. 

In the Oklahoma City metro area, housing assistance programs paid out millions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief during 2020.

Since the early days of the pandemic, an eviction moratorium has been in place to stop an increase in homelessness and lower the chance of COVID-19 spreading when evicted individuals have to move into congregate living situations, like shelters or with friends.

The lawmakers who opposed the bill pointed to these issues, saying if another health emergency happens in the future that is worse than COVID-19, the state will have tied its own hands.

“To put this in place, to make a definitive statement that says this is enforceable even in the event of a catastrophic health emergency is untenable,” said Rep. Meloyde Blancett, D-Tulsa, adding that the city of Tulsa is strongly opposed to the bill. 

Becky Gilgo, director of the Tulsa-based nonprofit Housing Solutions, said she was surprised and disappointed to see the bill passed out of committee. 

“I think the bill is unspeakably cruel,” Gilgo said. “I think about the impact this would have on our most vulnerable neighbors, and it frankly blows my mind that we are having this discussion during a pandemic.” 

Nearly 20,000 evictions have been filed in Oklahoma during the pandemic, according to Open Justice Oklahoma, which has been tracking evictions. Close to 8,000 evictions have been granted.

HB 1564 now goes to the House floor.

-Kayla Branch

Stitt could sign bill allowing virtual meetings as early as next week

Governor Kevin Stitt signed his first bill of the 2021 legislative session, allowing government entities to host virtual meetings once again during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The bill also requires agendas to be posted online. And an entity couldn’t say it would host a virtual meeting but then not do so. 

The changes would expire February 2022 or when the governor’s emergency declaration for the pandemic ends, whichever comes first. 

Virtual meetings were introduced last year at the start of the pandemic, and many were angry when the changes expired in November.

This measure was fast-tracked through the Senate and House floors, and it takes effect immediately.

Kayla Branch

Five bills restricting abortions pass out of Senate Health and Human Services Committee

The Senate Health and Human Services Committee passed five bills restricting access to abortion Feb. 3.

Lawmakers approved a measure from Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, that would prohibit abortions in Oklahoma if Roe v. Wade is overturned or the state otherwise receives authority to ban abortions. 

Two other bills authored by Sen. Nathan Dahm, R-Broken Arrow, would punish doctors for performing abortions except in medical emergencies, as well as limit state funding to any person or entity convicted of trafficking fetal body parts. 

And Sen. Julie Daniels, R-Bartlesville, pushed forward two separate bills regulating the use of abortion-inducing drugs. 

Notably, the committee unanimously rejected a bill that would give full legal protections and rights to a fetus. The state has previously spent thousands of dollars on court fees defending abortion-restricting legislation that was found to be unconstitutional. 

All five bills must still be heard on the Senate floor. If passed, the legislation would travel to the House chamber for consideration.

-Kayla Branch

Governor calls for a flat budget with additional money for state’s savings account

Gov. Kevin Stitt revealed his $8.3 billion budget proposal Feb. 2, which calls for a conservative approach to spending as the state continues wading through the pandemic’s financial fallout.

Stitt wants to hold yearly expenses flat, budgeting $7.8 billion to cover high-cost agencies like the state Department of Health, the Department of Education and the Department of Corrections. 

An additional $300 million is slated to go to the state’s savings accounts, and another $125 million would be used to pay back pension funds for teachers and first responders. 

Both the state’s savings and the pension funds were diminished last spring to fill a surprise budget hole caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Other additional funding is targeted for specific one-time needs, like $10 million in payroll help for district courts.

Missing from the Fiscal Year 2022 budget are any appropriations directly tied to dealing with COVID-19. 

Budget officials said the state Health Department and local schools received hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal government in December, and another federal aid package will likely be passed in the coming months.

-Kayla Branch

In his State of the State speech, Gov. Kevin Stitt says his response to COVID-19 has allowed businesses to flourish and kept unemployment low

Gov. Kevin Stitt used his State of the State address to highlight his response to COVID-19, claiming his avoidance of tough restrictions on businesses and public lockdowns helped Oklahoma gain an economic advantage over other states. 

Gov. Kevin Stitt delivers his State of the State address on Feb. 1, 2021. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

After briefly closing some businesses, Stitt reopened the state in June even as many other states had tighter restrictions due to the worsening COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Everywhere I go across the state, small business owners and workers tell me how grateful they are for being able to keep their businesses open, to provide income for their employees and their families and to provide the services their communities rely on,” Stitt said during Monday’s address. 

Stitt said Oklahoma had seen many businesses and events come to Oklahoma because of the lack of statewide meeting restrictions, including an annual agriculture event that recently relocated from Colorado. 

“The folks in Denver turned their back on the Ag industry. They wouldn’t let them have their major national cattle show because they insisted on keeping their state locked down,” Stitt said.

-Ben Felder