Protesters, political squabbles underscore tensions during deadline week
The past week at the state Capitol was one of the busiest and most contentious this session, filled with political squabbles, impromptu protests and the last large legislative deadline.
Early in the week, Republican leaders in the House and Senate disagreed on a bill that would push back against what they’ve called federal overreach. This later led to Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-OKC, facing calls for removal from the Oklahoma Second Amendment Association.
Dozens of association members came to the Capitol to protest Treat’s decision to change the federal-pushback bill that he said was unconstitutional. The group later apologized to Treat.
A separate group of protesters came to the Capitol Wednesday after the House passed a bill that would ban transgender women from playing on female sports teams and Gov. Kevin Stitt began signing a handful of anti-riot bills that activists say target the Black Lives Matter movement.
The group disrupted a meeting on the House floor with chants, and there were a few verbal altercations before they were escorted out.
The long-awaited legislative response to Stitt’s plan to privatize Medicaid was also passed off the House floor this week. Rep. Marcus McEntire, R-Duncan, successfully carried Senate Bill 131, which would require the state’s Health Care Authority to continue running Medicaid rather than private, for-profit companies.
Stitt said legislators were supporting a “socialized health care plan.” The bill would still have to be approved by the Senate, and it would likely need veto-proof majorities to become law.
Also this week, lawmakers sent several anti-abortion bills to the governor, and new district maps were unveiled as part of the state’s decennial redistricting process.
And Stitt had a bill signing ceremony for Ida’s Law, which will create a specialized office under the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigations to find missing and murdered Indigenous peoples.
At this point in the session, policy bills that are still alive are either on Stitt’s desk waiting to be signed or will be heading back to the House or Senate for final consideration and tweaks. Budget negotiations are ongoing.
Last-minute bill overhauls on Medicaid management, transgender students in sports approved
As lawmakers pushed up against another legislative deadline this week, a handful of bills were overhauled and given new language, sparking frustration between lawmakers and from Gov. Kevin Stitt.
Rep. Marcus McEntire, R-Duncan, dropped new language into Senate Bill 131 to stop Oklahoma’s Medicaid program from being overseen by private companies. The House Public Health Committee approved the bill on Wednesday, which was previously about pharmaceutical licensing.
A statement from Gov. Kevin Stitt pointed out that the language was changed at the last minute, and Stitt said he believed costs would be higher if the state continues to administer Medicaid.
“Oklahomans do not want to follow Joe Biden’s playbook and continue to grow a single-payer, government health care program that has led to Oklahoma ranking 49th in health outcomes,” he said.
The House Common Education Committee also approved a rewritten bill this week that would reverse a controversial decision by the state’s Board of Education to allow charter schools access to local property tax dollars.
And the House Criminal Justice and Corrections Committee on Thursday approved a bill that would bar transgender athletes from participating in women’s sports. Senate Bill 2 previously dealt with school finances.
“In the middle of a pandemic, Oklahomans are facing real issues,” said Rep. Mauree Turner, D-OKC, in a statement after the vote. “We need infrastructure, but my colleagues continue to double down on legislation that denies the existence of trans youth.
Committee work is now mostly done at the Capitol, and many bills have one last floor vote before they can be sent to the governor’s desk for final approval.
As budget negotiations take focus, Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-OKC, told reporters that there is “not an appetite” in the Senate to phase out the state’s corporate income tax, which generates millions of dollars every year toward education.
This was a blow to House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, who was pushing to get rid of the tax to grow the state’s economy after the COVID-19 pandemic.
Republicans push through education reform, prohibitions on diversity training in schools
Tensions were high at the state Capitol this week as Republicans pushed through education reform and moved to prohibit schools from mandating gender or sexual diversity training.
Gov. Kevin Stitt signed two major controversial education bills Wednesday, shifting the state’s school funding formula and removing most of the barriers for student transfers.
“These reforms are vital to getting Oklahoma to be a top ten state in education,” Stitt said.
State schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, education advocates and many Republican and Democratic lawmakers were against the changes.
Stitt signed the bills just hours after they passed off the House and Senate floors.
Lawmakers also held several committee meetings this week, approving a slew of bills on abortion restrictions, demanding localities cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and calling Oklahoma a sanctuary state for the Second Amendment.
And Rep. Danny Williams, R-Seminole, brought back his highly contentious bill that would prohibit any governmental entity, including schools, from providing mandatory sexual and gender diversity training. If training was required, public funding would be pulled.
The bill was originally tabled on the House floor without a vote, missing an important deadline. But Williams amended the language of another unrelated bill, and the House General Government Committee approved the bill 6-2.
“(The original bill) didn’t make it through our initial deadline for a reason,” said Rep. Mauree Turner, D-OKC. “We have quite honestly jumped through loopholes for bigotry to persist, while saying we didn’t have the power to enforce a mask mandate at the Capitol.”
Earlier in the week, Imad Enchassi, a professor and the senior imam of the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City, gave the daily prayer in the state Senate. It is believed to be the first time an Islamic faith leader was approved to give the daily prayer for senators.
Committee approves protections for fleeing drivers that hit protesters in roadways
Advocates say there is an aggressive effort to chill protests in Oklahoma and pointed to several bills that were approved this week.
On Monday, the Senate Public Safety Committee passed House Bill 1674, which provides legal immunity to fleeing drivers that hit protesters in roadways. That bill now goes to the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Senate Bill 560, a similar piece of legislation, was stalled on a 4-4 vote in a House committee. But it will likely be heard again next week.
Senate Bill 119 was passed out of a House committee, requiring groups to get a permit over a week before coming to demonstrate at the state Capitol.
Rep. Todd Russ, R-Cordell, fielded questions about whether the bill infringed on first amendment rights to gather on public property.
“Our access to the people’s house is absolutely vital to a good democracy,” Russ said. “But I do feel like there is some, I guess you could say, rules of engagement. I love my children. … But if they jumped on the cushions on the couch or if they ate on the carpet or they tore up the furniture, there was swift and immediate discipline.
“If people can’t behave properly in the people’s house,” he said, “ I think there has got to be some way to address that.
And despite free speech concerns, senators approved House Bill 1643, an anti-doxxing measure that makes it illegal to post private information of peace officers or public officials.
Democratic lawmakers reiterated their frustration that several police reform bills were not heard in committees as other bills bolstering police protections and cracking down on protests were approved.
Rep. Monroe Nichols, D-Tulsa, told reporters at a press conference Wednesday that a handful of his bills and bills from several other lawmakers would have updated police accountability measures, banned chokeholds and better investigated uses of deadly force.
“We have been offering solutions to this problem for years,” Nichols said. “I think it is far past time the folks in this building and leadership listen to us because this is really from the voices of our communities in our effort to make a system of justice and law enforcement practices more fair for everybody.”
Lawmakers encourage NRA to move to Oklahoma
The House adopted a handful of resolutions this week, including one asking the National Rifle Association to move its headquarters to Oklahoma.
Rep. Steve Bashore, R-Miami, wrote House Resolution 1007 to encourage the move.
“With about 80,000 people that attend their annual conferences and 5.5 million approximate members, we feel this is a good, open opportunity to invite them here,” Bashore said.
The NRA is in the process of moving its incorporation from New York to Texas after declaring bankruptcy, and Bashore hopes the group will relocate its headquarters from Virginia to Oklahoma in the process.
The resolution points out that Oklahoma has the ninth highest firearms sales nationwide and says the “love and appreciation of firearms by Oklahomans is evident.”
The House also adopted resolutions asserting state sovereignty in response to the federal government attempting to update election protocols and require background checks for firearm sales, as well as a bill asking Oklahomans to enjoy meat and poultry products.
This week was the Legislature’s spring break, a light work week following days of lengthy floor sessions. The House and Senate will begin to hear bills in committee again next week.
At halfway point, lawmakers focus on abortion restrictions, tax cuts and curbing protests
As the 2021 legislative session reaches its midpoint, lawmakers have already debated and advanced hundreds of bills.
This week, with a backdrop of Gov. Kevin Stitt rescinding COVID-19 restrictions, the House and Senate approved dozens of bills on firearms, abortion restrictions and tax cuts — typical topics for Oklahoma lawmakers.
Here is a look at what elected officials did at the state Capitol during the week of March 8:
– Several Republican-backed abortion restriction bills were advanced, including a “heartbeat” bill that would make it illegal to have an abortion if a fetal heartbeat can be detected.
Other bills are aimed at taking away the medical license of physicians who perform abortions for reasons other than to save the woman’s life and a process to track the use and prescription of abortion-inducing drugs.
– Lawmakers are responding to protests last summer against police brutality by bolstering police protections and increasing penalties for those engaged in unlawful gatherings.
The House pushed forward a bill that would give legal immunity to drivers that hit protesters blocking a roadway. The Senate approved a measure that will increase the penalties for assaulting a law enforcement officer or damaging property.
– Senate Bill 320 by Sen. Jessica Garvin, R-Duncan, will expand which inmates are eligible for medical parole.
Currently, an inmate has to be dying or near death to be eligible for consideration. If the bill is approved by the House and signed by the governor, individuals that are medically frail or medically vulnerable would also be eligible during a health emergency.
In 2020, only 12 inmates were granted medical parole as COVID-19 outbreaks swept through the state’s prison system.
– House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, ran two bills that will phase out the corporate income tax and reduce personal income taxes at all income brackets.
The move will reintroduce the earned income tax credit, which has long been an economic priority for Democratic lawmakers, but many worry about decreasing revenue for the state budget while Oklahoma recovers from the financial impact of the pandemic.
– Lawmakers debated whether they would hear House Bill 1888, a controversial measure that would prohibit government entities (including schools) from holding sexual or gender diversity training.
The bill was scheduled during House floor sessions throughout the week, and at one point it was amended to require teachers to out students to their parents.
By Thursday evening, though, the bill had not been heard and missed an important legislative deadline. This means it is unlikely to come up again this year.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A number of anti-abortion activists have gathered in the hallway outside the Senate Assembly Room pic.twitter.com/3UT5qNmlGP— Dillon Richards (@KOCODillon) February 3, 2021
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.
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.
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.
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.