COVID-19, budget issues will headline upcoming state legislative session

  • COVID-19, budget issues will headline upcoming state legislative session

OKLAHOMA CITY – Members of the Oklahoma Legislature met Tuesday to organize the House of Representatives and Senate to prepare for the upcoming legislative session.

Lawmakers also suited up for the second consecutive year in their ongoing battle against the COVID-19 pandemic. Across the state, the number of Oklahomans infected with the coronavirus has risen to 308,000 as of Jan. 6. The virus has killed 2,571 Oklahomans. Nationwide, more than 21 million Americans have been infected with the virus; of that number 357,000 have died.

In addition, the fallout from the coronavirus has hammered the state’s economy, forced many businesses to close and eliminated thousands of jobs. Last fall the legislature’s Republican leadership expressed concerned over the state’s budget, anticipating big reductions in tax revenue and substantial budget cuts.

However, in December, following a meeting of the state Equalization Board, the state’s budget picture brightened considerably. On December 19, the board said the legislature would have $631 million more than originally expected to spend for the 2022 budget.

State Treasurer Randy McDaniel, a member of the equalization board, said the extra funds were due in part because Oklahoma banks worked with the federal government to pump billions of dollars into the Oklahoma economy and because increased unemployment benefits helped Oklahomans “weather the storm.”

Still, even with a better-than-expected revenue picture Greg Treat, the Senate’s leader, said the state faces a difficult situation.

“Our state faces a difficult situation as we look to recover and rebound from the health and economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic,” Treat, R-Oklahoma City, said. “The Oklahoma Senate and its members and staff are ready to rise to the challenge and I look forward to leading the chamber as we work together to make Oklahoma an even better place for our families, friends and neighbors.”

House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, a Norman Democrat, called on the House leadership to do more to combat the pandemic. In a media statement, Virgin said the House’s Democratic Caucus had filed several amendments to the House rules proposed by House leaders for the upcoming session designed to control the spread of the virus.

She said the Democrats’ amendments would set an example for how an organization can continue to operate while also valuing the safety and wellbeing of its members and staff.

All of the amendments were tabled by House Republicans, Virgin said.

“For the past year, legislative Republicans have offered very little in the fight against this pandemic,” she said. “By their votes today, they are showing that they are going to continue to absolve themselves from leadership responsibilities during this ongoing crisis.”

Virgin said one amendment would require members to wear protective face masks. That amendment, she said, falls in line with the governor’s own mandate that state employees and Capitol visitors wear masks. Another amendment would allow for members to attend committees virtually but from their offices and yet another proposal would remove gender pronouns to form the rulebook.

Andy Fugate, the House Minority Floor Leader said the caucus’ amendments would increase safety, transparency, public participation and inclusiveness.

The First Session of the 58th Legislature opens Monday, Feb. 1. Lawmakers have until Jan. 21 to file legislation for the session.