Oklahoma lawmakers are preparing for a busy, and uncertain, 2021.
Legislators will return to the State Capitol at the start of February with a lengthy to-do list waiting for them following the 2020 session that was cut short due to COVID-19 pandemic.
On top of constitutionally required tasks that include crafting the state’s budget, completing the once-every-decade redistricting work and finding close to $150 million to pay for the voter-approved Medicaid expansion plan, lawmakers will be responding to the largest health crisis impacting the state, and the entire nation, in decades.
Top legislators provided a preview of what’s to come next year Wednesday during the annual legislative forum hosted by the State Chamber of Commerce.
Here’s the big takeaways from the discussion with leaders from the two parties.
Reacting to COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic that has killed nearly 3,000 and infected more than 223,000 Oklahomans will loom large over next year’s session.
Leaders from both parties did not go into specifics about how they would respond to the ongoing health crisis. That’s partly because state officials here and elsewhere are waiting to see whether Congress will approve a new stimulus package that includes money for states to shore up their budgets and pay for services to fight the virus or provide relief for those impacted by it.
Lawmakers did, however, address how COVID-19 would impact the legislative process.
Unlike earlier this year when access to the Capitol was open only to lawmakers, staff, media and essential state workers, Senate Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, said the Capitol likely will be open to the public next year, though it might be limited capacity for hearings and other events.
“My top goals are to protect the public, staff and members,” he said.
Treat said the Legislature might look at making permanent a provision that allowed government meetings to be held entirely online. A temporary policy expired this fall.
Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman, also endorsed that idea. But she said lawmakers also need to ensure that the public can “engage” with the Legislature in addition to following along with the action virtually.
Budget, Redistricting Battles Likely Awaits
The Legislature’s responsibility of writing a multi-billion dollar state budget for the upcoming fiscal year is traditionally one of the most time-consuming and difficult tasks of the session.
And with lawmakers bracing for a hefty budget shortfall, caused by pandemic’s impact on the economy paired with a downturn in the oil and gas industry, it likely will be more contentious than usual.
Gov. Kevin Stitt has repeatedly said that he won’t back tax increases to stabilize the budget. That means, unless Oklahoma receives significant federal bailout money, the state will be forced to slash budgets.
Virgin said the Democratic caucus will oppose cuts to core services that could severely impact residents, particularly those already struggling.
“The pandemic has brought to light what a lot of Oklahomans and working families are dealing with,” she said. “I think we need to invest in our core services so that they are there when people need them.”
Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, acknowledged that the budget will be a “challenge.” He didn’t go into if, or how much, core services like health, education and public safety will see cuts.
But he said one of the focuses of the Legislature must be to keep the economy strong and open during the pandemic so the budget hit is not worse.
“(The budget) would be a much greater challenge had the state’s economy not stayed open, and we hope the vaccine will give our economy that bounce back to that historical high that we were experiencing before,” McCall said.
Further complicating the budget is the estimated $164 million needed to pay for the state’s share for implementing Medicaid expansion. Voters approved a state question during the primary election that changes the state’s constitution to extend Medicaid eligibility to adults making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level ($17,236 for an individual or $35,534 for a family of four).
About 215,000 Oklahomans are expected to gain health insurance through the move. McCall said finding money to fund that expansion is among his top priorities.
Lawmakers also must redraw the state’s legislative and congressional boundaries. The federal government will soon deliver numbers from the recently completed decennial Census, which will be used for the redistricting.
Both parties said they hope to create a transparent process to fairly redraw the borders. But while Democrats will be working with Republicans on a redistricting committee, the GOP has strong supermajorities in the House and Senate that allows them to drive the work.
Deciding What Can Make the Ballot
Lawmakers discussed whether the Legislature should place new restrictions on citizen-led ballot initiatives that paved the way for Medicaid expansion this year and medical marijuana and criminal justice reform state questions in 2016.
The narrow passage of those state questions, which drew opposition from many conservatives, has prompted some Republican legislators to seek changes that would make it harder to get an initiative on the ballot. This includes one GOP lawmaker filing a bill that would require 60% of voters to approve a state question rather than the current simple majority threshold. Others have suggested requiring signature collectors to gather a certain percentage of their signatures in different geographical regions of the state.
McCall and Treat signaled Wednesday they are open to considering these types of changes.
“I’m a believer in democracy, but not a big believer in direct democracy,” Treat said. “I’m open to those discussions, but we shall never thwart the voice of the people because if we do so, it’ll be at our peril.”
Virgin and Floyd, however, cautioned against making any changes.
“I think we have to look at why we’ve seen an uptick in initiative petitions and changes to the state constitution,” she said. “And I think it’s because the Legislature has failed to act on important issues and the voters just got tired of that.”