A last-minute disagreement between the Oklahoma House and Senate over a pandemic relief bill to fund domestic violence programs is the only piece of unfinished business from a two-day special session that allocated almost $2 billion to water infrastructure, broadband and mental health needs.
Lawmakers failed to act on a $95.2 million spending bill that would go to the Department of Human Services to expand childcare services, food programs and various programs for the effects of domestic violence. They expect to take up that bill when the regular session starts in February.
The Legislature gave itself until Oct. 14 to conclude the special session for rural economic development and approval of projects under the federal American Rescue Plan Act. That will give lawmakers time to come back and attempt to override any vetoes by Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt.
The Senate and House both spent hours Thursday debating the merits of gender-affirming care, an issue that caught the attention of many lawmakers after learning about the Roy G. Biv program at Oklahoma Children’s Hospital in Oklahoma City.
Senate Bill 3XX gives $108.5 million in relief funds to the University Hospitals Authority. Among the projects is $39.4 million for adolescent mental health care. The bill, which forbids OU Health from doing gender-reassignment medical care on minors, passed the Senate 31-13 and the House by a vote of 67-24.
Some lawmakers, including many Democrats, said they were frustrated by the focus on gender-affirming care, especially since that issue didn’t come up at all in any previous public discussions of the federal pandemic relief money. They said a small group of lawmakers was holding relief funding hostage as a political stunt.
“I am heartsick after the hard work we put in over the summer,” said Rep. Meloyde Blancett, D-Tulsa. “This (pandemic relief) process was good work done in a bipartisan way.”
Rep. Mauree Turner, who is nonbinary, said they were disappointed in colleagues who have voted one way on the floor but are supportive of them behind the scenes. Turner said passing restrictions on gender-affirming medical care creates a generation of isolation.
“I come not only to push progressive legislation but to make sure our children, our families, feel seen and feel heard,” said Turner, an Oklahoma City Democrat. “People don’t see themselves in this building. It makes it hard for them to come talk to us, because of the intimidation that happens here through policy.”
The House gallery, which had scores of medical professionals and allies of gender-affirming care, broke out in applause and shouts after Turner concluded their debate. The crowd was admonished by Rep. Ryan Martinez, R-Edmond, who was in the speaker’s chair.
Rep. Kevin West, R-Moore, presented the bill in the House. He said he hoped lawmakers could come back in regular session next year and forbid the procedures statewide, not just at Oklahoma Children’s Hospital. The legislation prohibits gender-reassignment surgery, hormone therapy or puberty blockers at the hospital for minors.
“Some of the most progressive countries in the world have put restrictions on this type of care for minors,” said West, who referred to Sweden and the United Kingdom.
SB 3XX also provides $20 million to expand cancer care at OU Health’s Stephenson Cancer Center to the northeast part of the state. Another $44 million will help OU Health finish an ongoing project for electronic health records, and $5.1 million will go toward mobile dentistry units.
Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat said a last-minute change to a Department of Human Services spending bill led to it falling off the special session agenda this week. When the project came out of the committee last week, it included $2.8 million for the YWCA in Oklahoma City to spend on transitional housing for youth aging out of foster care.
“The House wished to modify that, and we didn’t agree to it,” Treat said Friday. “But we’re working with Speaker (Charles) McCall and his team to come up with a solution. I’m not nervous about it. The underlying money that goes to domestic violence (programs) on an ongoing basis has started to go out.”
Drought Relief, Economic Development
Lawmakers approved an extra $20 million for drought relief that will come from existing state funds. The Legislature allocated $3 million to the Emergency Drought Relief Fund earlier this year. More than half the state is under extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
The Legislature also approved $250 million in various projects for rural economic development, part of the Progression Rural Economic Prosperity fund that came out of the budget from the regular session earlier this year. That money will go to various infrastructure enhancements at 24 industrial parks, airports or fairgrounds across the state that don’t qualify for upgrades under the requirements of the American Rescue Plan Act.
With this week’s special session, the Legislature has now allocated most of the state’s $1.87 billion in federal pandemic relief funds. The process began last year, and the state received more than 1,400 applications for the money totaling almost $18 billion.
The state has until December 2024 to allocate federal relief funds and until December 2026 to spend the money.
Not including the pending bill for DHS that lawmakers are expected to take up next year, the state has about $96 million remaining to allocate under its share of the American Rescue Plan Act funds, Senate staff said Friday.
Other spending bills from this week’s special session are headed to Stitt for his approval:
- Senate Bill 13XX: Sends $341.6 million to the Oklahoma Water Resources Board to use for various grant and matching grant programs for qualifying water infrastructure projects. The final recipients have not yet been identified since they must apply to the water board for the grants.
- Senate Bill 15XX: Appropriates $42 million to the Oklahoma Military Department. It has $22.1 million for a health and fitness center for service members and first responders, $11.9 million for Thunderbird Academy and $8 million for a National Guard Joint Operations Center.
- Senate Bill 16XX: Sends $11.2 million to the State Board of Career and Technology Education, with $5 million for broadband workforce training and $6.2 million to expand trucking workforce training.
- Senate Bill 17XX: Appropriates $600,000 to the Health Care Workforce Commission to be used for health care workforce training at Kiamichi Technology Center and East Central University.
- Senate Bill 18XX: Has $10 million for the Oklahoma Arts Council to help nonprofits affected by the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
- Senate Bill 19XX: Appropriates $30.67 million to the Office of Juvenile Affairs.
- Senate Bill 20XX: Sends $120.26 million to the Oklahoma State Department of Health for various projects, including $26 million for an electronic health records system for county health departments; $10 million to Hearts for Hearing to expand capacity at its center in Oklahoma City; $25 million to help rural hospitals; and $8.96 million for early learning services.
- Senate Bill 21XX: Appropriates $6 million to the J.D McCarty Center for medical care for developmentally disabled children affected by the pandemic, including an outpatient treatment center for children with autism.
- House Bill 1006XX: Adds $20 million to the Emergency Drought Relief Fund. This money is coming from state cash reserves.
- House Bill 1009XX: Appropriates $8.185 million to the Oklahoma Educational Television Authority to upgrade transmitters and translators for emergency broadcasts.
- House Bill 1010XX: Sends $6.23 million to the Administrative Office of the Courts for several projects, including electronic case filing, disaster recovery information technology services and video-conferencing systems and equipment. It also includes money for court interpreters and translators.
- House Bill 1011XX: Has $549.7 million for broadband projects across the state. The money will go to the new Oklahoma Broadband Office for projects yet to be finalized.
- House Bill 1012XX: Appropriates $110 million to the Oklahoma State University Medical Authority. Three projects will be funded from the bill: $50 million for a biotechnology drug laboratory at xxx; $50 million for a human performance and nutrition institute; and $10 million for rural health care.
- House Bill 1013XX: Sends $125 million to the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. About $87 million will go toward replacing Griffin Memorial Hospital in Norman, which dates to the 1890s and is the state’s largest psychiatric hospital. The replacement would add another 100 beds, bringing the total staffed beds to 275 for adults and 55 for adolescents. Another $38 million would add 50 beds to the 56 existing beds at the Tulsa Center for Behavioral Health. The project already has $26 million in funding commitments from other donors.
- House Bill 1014XX: Appropriates $2.52 million to the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety for two mobile response units to help first responders like troopers, firefighters and EMS personnel deal with work-related trauma.
- House Bill 1015XX: Sends $6 million to the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security to build nine regional emergency response centers across the state.
- House Bill 1016XX: Uses $100.35 million in Progressing Rural Economic Prosperity Funds for infrastructure upgrades at industrial parks.
- House Bill 1017XX: Appropriates a mix of state funds and federal relief funds totaling $31.8 million for infrastructure upgrades at industrial parks and airports.
- House Bill 1018XX: Sends $68.75 million to the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology for various workforce training programs in manufacturing, aviation and technology.
- House Bill 1019XX: Appropriates $75.95 million to the Oklahoma Department of Commerce for grants for industrial parks under the Progressing Rural Economic Prosperity Funds.
- House Bill 1022XX: Appropriates $111.2 million from state funds and federal relief funds to the Department of Commerce for rural economic development.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @pmonies.