The Legislature reconvened this past week after almost a month in recess due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We wore masks, had our temperature taken, and followed the CDC social distancing guidelines. I listened to bills from my office, and only went onto the House Chamber floor to vote or participate in debate. As you can imagine this slowed up the legislative process significantly, but we were able to accomplish our goals for the week.
One of our first actions was to announce an agreement between the House and Senate on a $7.7 billion state budget for FY21, and to vote on the multiple bills that make up the budget legislation. The budget is now with the Governor’s team and he has five days to respond.
The budget was based on figures by the Governor and the state Board of Equalization that shows we have $1.4 billion, or 17 percent, less to appropriate for FY21 than in FY20. By using some of our reserve funds, cutting some one-time expenses and temporarily redirecting non-appropriated money into the budget, we were able to keep cuts to core state services to 4 percent or less for most agencies.
A reduction of only 4 percent, versus the 17 percent, is the result of lots of hard work by both the House and Senate Appropriations and Budgets teams and I want to give a shout-out to them for a job well done.
The budget is far better than many expected and prioritizes education. Recent teacher pay raises are fully protected in this new budget. The reduction to education for FY21 is just 2.5 percent or $78 million, but with the addition of federal relief funds of $200 million, education is projected to receive more overall funding in FY21 than in FY20.
We refused to let a virus roll back the historic investments Oklahoma has made in education the past few years and I’m proud of what we were able to accomplish under the circumstances.
Even with the four percent cuts to other agencies, those cuts could potentially be mitigated by the $1.25 billion Governor Stitt has received from the federal government for COVID-19 expenses. It is the legislature’s contention that every bit of the budget problem we are now experiencing is a result of COVID-19, and those additional federal funds can be used to help agencies in FY21. Stay tuned.
Many of the bills we passed this week were related to the budget, but we also considered a few policy measures. One bill protects our health care workers from civil liability when treating patients for COVID-19.
People who experience gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct will still be able to seek compensation, but in this time of extraordinary crisis, we do not need anyone trying to profit off of the pandemic.
Another measure that passed extended the Governor’s declared Catastrophic Health Emergency for an additional 30 days. This gives the Governor broader power to temporarily work outside of statute when responding to COVID-19 issues.
We also passed a bill that amends the supervisory role of physicians over certified registered nurse anesthetists. The nurse anesthetists will now work in collaboration with physicians so this will save them some time and cost as they provide essential health care services to Oklahomans. The bill has been a long time in the making and represents the efforts of both these groups working with the Legislature to come up with a compromise on which they both agree.
We also passed two resolutions to recognize the exceptional work of health care professionals and front line workers from all walks of life during the COVID-19 pandemic. House Resolution 1034 proclaimed the week of Wednesday, May 6 through Tuesday, May 12 as “Nurses Week”. Nurses represent a large segment of the health care workforce and they deserve our deepest gratitude for their tireless sacrifices to keep Oklahomans safe and healthy. In addition, House Resolution 1035 proclaims May 2020 as “Front Line Workers Recognition Month” in Oklahoma.
Now more than ever, Oklahomans are realizing the vital importance of our front line workers. They willingly put their own health at risk by serving during the pandemic, and they deserve our thanks for their hard work.
Senate Bill 210 passed by a 74-26 margin allowing voters to safely cast absentee ballots for the June 30 election without having to go to the polls or use a notary. To vote using an absentee ballot, voters can simply make a copy of a valid state identification or their Voter ID Card and put it in an absentee ballot envelope; no notary is needed.
Showing proper identification to vote is standard practice at the polls, and is how Oklahoma protects the integrity of our election process. In addition, if the Governor declares another public health emergency again within 45 days of any remaining elections in 2020, SB210 will apply for those elections too.
Nursing facility and veterans’ center residents can vote absentee under existing Election Board procedures for those facilities that would be enhanced by allowing a facility official to be deputized by an election official to enter the facility to collect required documentation.
Finally, I happily signed on as co-author to a resolution that joined Oklahoma to the National Day of Prayer observed on May 7. Now more than ever, prayer for protection and provision and of thanksgiving is of the utmost importance for our nation and state.
Until next time then, I can be reached at Jadine.Nollan@okhouse.gov or at my Capitol office by calling (405) 557-7390. God bless.