Almost $70 million in pandemic relief projects now await approval by Gov. Kevin Stitt as the Oklahoma Legislature continued work Wednesday on a special session on the state’s share of $1.87 billion under the federal American Rescue Plan Act. 

The House approved a package of seven bills on Wednesday, two days after the Senate voted on the projects involving nonprofit relief, water projects, nursing education and optometry programs. 

Missing from that package was $39.4 million for pediatric behavioral health care. The Legislature’s Joint Committee for Pandemic Relief approved that project last week, but Senate Bill 7XX didn’t come up for a vote in the Senate on Monday. 

The University Hospital Authority requested $56.8 million in pandemic relief funds for pediatric mental health. The project would go toward a new building for pediatric mental health in Oklahoma City that would serve children from across the state. The Legislature in December approved $7.5 million to go to extra bed capacity for pediatric mental health at Oklahoma Children’s Hospital. It also contributed $9.9 million in appropriations during the regular session.

Sen. Roger Thompson, co-chairman of the joint committee, said the House indicated it wasn’t willing to hear the bill at this time. 

“We believe in time they will hear it, and in time we’ll have a package put together,” Thompson said. “More mental health packages are still very much a priority of ours, but they just sent word they wouldn’t hear the bill.” 

House Speaker Pro Tempore Kyle Hilbert, R-Bristow, said Wednesday the pediatric mental health project would likely be combined with other pandemic relief applications to add adult mental health beds and upgrades at facilities in Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Norman. The total package could be around $200 million. 

Hilbert said lawmakers are expected to hold more public meetings in July or August on the other pandemic relief fund applications. 

“In terms of actually gaveling in for special session, it’s really hard to say at this point,” Hilbert said.  

Projects approved Wednesday and headed for approval by the governor are: 

  • $25 million for the state Commerce Department to run a program for relief for state nonprofits (SB 6XX). A companion bill, SB 11XX, sets up the rules for the nonprofit program.
  • $20 million to the Oklahoma Water Resources Board to pair with water infrastructure project funds contributed by the Chickasaw, Choctaw and Cherokee tribes (SB 4XX). 
  • $15 million to the Health Care Work Force Training Commission. It will be paired with $18 million from Northeastern State University in Tahlequah to fund a $33 million expansion of its optometry program (SB 8XX).
  • $8.8 million to the Health Care Work Force Training Commission to pay for nursing programs at four CareerTechs across the state (SB 9XX).
  • $500,000 for administrative expenses at the state’s Broadband Office (SB 5XX) and $250,000 for administrative expenses at the Health Care Work Force Training Commission (SB 10XX). 

In the regular session that ended in May, lawmakers approved $140 million in project awards from the American Rescue Plan Act, according to the Senate’s fiscal staff. They include $50 million for nursing programs in higher education, $75 million in water infrastructure projects and $7.5 million for behavioral health projects for children. 

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Lawmakers last month voted themselves into a special session for pandemic relief funds in part out of frustration with the governor’s slow pace of project approvals. A year ago, the Legislature set up the Joint Committee on Pandemic Relief, which includes working groups to evaluate projects to address the health and economic fallout from the pandemic. Broadband improvements and water and sewer improvements are also eligible for funding under the federal law.

Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, said Wednesday some of the projects approved last December languished at the Office of Management and Enterprise Services or on the governor’s desk. 

“We delivered this week on what we said we were going to do,” Treat said. “People need that money going out the door. Money did not go out. It only went out for administration. We had to take over the ARPA process and put it back to a normal appropriations process. The governor still has a seat at the table to veto or sign those measures.” 

Oklahoma Watch filed a lawsuit against the Office of Management and Enterprise Services in April after being denied an open records request to see almost $18 billion in applications for the pandemic relief funds. The agency turned over a spreadsheet summarizing the applications after Stitt was asked about the lawsuit in a press conference at the end of May. 

Paul Monies has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2017 and covers state agencies and public health. Contact him at (571) 319-3289 or pmonies@oklahomawatch.org. Follow him on Twitter @pmonies. 

Paul Monies has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2017 and covers state agencies and public health. Contact him at (571) 319-3289 or pmonies@oklahomawatch.org. Follow him on Twitter @pmonies. 


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