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Oklahoma Legislature extends governor's emergency powers during COVID-19 pandemic

OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma House and Senate voted separately Tuesday to extend Gov. Kevin Stitt’s extensive emergency powers during the coronavirus epidemic, despite some grumbling about his lack of communication with lawmakers on how exactly he has used those powers.

Passed while both bodies convened in a special session, Senate Concurrent Resolution 1X requires Stitt to provide written documentation about what powers he is exercising under the Catastrophic Health Emergency Powers Act.

Several lawmakers said Stitt has failed to do that, but the 30-day extension passed 43-4 in the Senate and 73-24 in the House.

Under questioning from Senate Minority Leader Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City, Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, said he is prepared to terminate the extension if the governor fails to provide the required information.

In addition, lawmakers are pushing legislation to require the executive branch to post on a government website how the Stitt administration has spent federal stimulus dollars to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak.

House Majority Leader Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, agreed that Stitt has not been as forthcoming as even many Republicans would like, but he said extending the Catastrophic Health Emergency Powers Act declaration is even more necessary now that business restrictions are being lifted.

“We don’t know what that’s going to mean,” Echols said. “Nobody does. … A lot of people have ideas, but we don’t know what’s next.”

Echols said he believes that Stitt has generally acted appropriately under the provisions of the emergency order but acknowledged that the governor has not met the order’s reporting requirements. That seemed to be behind House opposition to renewing the order.

Only Democrats spoke against the resolution in the House, but a handful of Republicans joined in voting against it.

Sen. George Young, D-Oklahoma City, was among the four voting against it in the Senate.

Lawmakers have given Stitt enough power, Young said, adding that he didn’t agree with how Stitt had used it.

Young said Stitt early on failed to push more money into coronavirus testing.

He also said he didn’t agree with Stitt’s decision about reopening the state, saying it was “a little early.”

Rep. Forrest Bennett, D-Oklahoma City, said asking for an extension of the emergency while relaxing virus-related restrictions seems contradictory.

“You can (believe) several things at once,” Echols said. “You can believe COVID-19 is serious — and I believe it is — and you can also believe we can’t crush the economy and bring the country to its knees.

“We’re in the next stage of pandemic; let’s not kid ourselves,” he said. “Whether we open up now or two weeks from now, government will have to be able to move quickly.”

Lawmakers then met in regular session to advance budget bills.

Legislative leaders announced on Monday a proposed fiscal year 2021 budget that would limit most state agency cuts to 4% but essentially hold education flat.

The agreement calls for a budget of $7.7 billion, which is $237.8 million, or 3%, less than the fiscal year 2020 budget.

The Senate passed Senate Bill 1921, which would transfer $243.6 million from the Constitutional Reserve Fund to the State Board of Education for the financial support of public schools.

The Senate passed SB 1922, the general appropriations bill, which would set the state appropriation levels for state agencies and services for fiscal year 2021.

The Senate also passed SB 1937, which would give the Oklahoma Health Care Authority the ability to access funds in the Rate Preservation Fund to shore up provider rates. The bill would remove the provision that the fund can be used only when the Federal Medical Assistance Percentage rate would result in provider rate cuts.

In addition, the Senate passed SB 1073, which would authorize the use of funding from cigarette and tobacco product taxes intended for Insure Oklahoma to fund the state’s Medicaid program.

The Senate also passed SB 1944, which would direct the Office of Management and Enterprise Services to publish daily reports of all expenditures from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security — or CARES — Act on the state’s checkbook website. Oklahoma received $1.2 billion in federal relief funds.

The House passed four budget-related bills.

House Bills 2741 and 2742 would temporarily redirect about $112 million currently earmarked for the state’s pension systems to what are commonly called common education’s 1017 funds.

Lawmakers said the measures would not take money from the retirement systems’ accounts but would temporarily reduce state contributions to them by 25%.

House Bills 2743 and 2744 would send $180 million now directly apportioned to roads and bridges to the 1017 fund and would authorize the Oklahoma Department of Transportation to issue $200 million in bonds to offset the loss.

The state has employed similar maneuvers in the past to negotiate sharp revenue declines.

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US infection rate rising outside New York as states open up

Take the New York metropolitan area’s progress against the coronavirus out of the equation, and the numbers show the rest of the U.S. is moving in the wrong direction, with the known infection rate rising even as states move to lift their lockdowns, an Associated Press analysis found Tuesday.

New confirmed infections per day in the U.S. exceed 20,000, and deaths per day are well over 1,000, according to figures from Johns Hopkins University. And public health officials warn that the failure to flatten the curve and drive down the infection rate in places could lead to many more deaths — perhaps tens of thousands — as people are allowed to venture out and businesses reopen.

“Make no mistakes: This virus is still circulating in our community, perhaps even more now than in previous weeks” said Linda Ochs, director of the Health Department in Shawnee County, Kansas.

Elsewhere around the world, Britain’s official coronavirus death toll, at more than 29,000, topped that of Italy to become the highest in Europe and second-highest in the world behind the United States. The official number of dead worldwide surpassed a quarter-million, by Johns Hopkins’ count, though the true toll is believed to be much higher.

The New York metropolitan area, consisting of about 20 million people across a region that encompasses the city’s northern suburbs, Long Island and northern New Jersey, has been the hardest-hit corner of the country, accounting for at least one-third of the nation’s 71,000 deaths. People across the densely packed region live practically on top of each other in apartment buildings and ride together on subways, buses and trains.

When the still locked-down metropolitan area is included, new infections in the U.S. appear to be declining, according to the AP analysis. It found that the five-day rolling average for new cases has decreased from 9.3 per 100,000 people three weeks ago on April 13 to 8.6 on Monday.

But subtracting the New York area from the analysis changes the story. Without it, the rate of new cases in the U.S. increased over the same period from 6.2 per 100,000 people to 7.5.

While the daily number of new deaths in the metro area has declined markedly in recent weeks, it has essentially plateaued in the rest of the U.S., the analysis found. Without greater New York, the rolling five-day average for new deaths per 500,000 people dropped slightly from 1.86 on April 20th to 1.82 on Monday.

U.S. testing for the virus has been expanded, and that has probably contributed to the increasing rate of confirmed infections. But it doesn’t explain the entire increase, said Dr. Zuo-Feng Zhang, a public health researcher at the University of California at Los Angeles.

“This increase is not because of testing. It’s a real increase,” he said.

Pockets of America far from New York City are seeing ominous trends.

Deaths in Iowa surged to a new daily high of 19 on Tuesday, and 730 workers at a single Tyson Foods pork plant tested positive. On Monday, Shawnee County, home to Topeka, Kansas, reported a doubling of cases from last week on the same day that business restrictions began to ease.

Gallup, New Mexico, is under a strict lockdown until Thursday because of an outbreak, with guarded roadblocks to prevent travel in and out of the city and a ban on more than two people in a vehicle. Authorities have deployed water tankers, hospital space is running short, and a high school gym is now a recuperation center with 60 oxygen-supplied beds.

On Monday, a model from the University of Washington nearly doubled its projection of deaths in the U.S. from the coronavirus to around 134,000 through early August, with a range of 95,000 to nearly 243,000.

Dr. Christopher Murray, director of the institute that created the projections, said the increase is largely because most states are expected to ease restrictions by next week.

Without stay-at-home orders and similar measures, Murray said, “we would have had exponential growth, much larger epidemics and deaths in staggering numbers.” But cooperation is waning, with cellphone location data showing people are getting out more, even before their states reopen, he said.

President Donald Trump, asked about the projections before traveling to Arizona to visit a mask factory, disputed the accuracy of models in general and said keeping the economy closed carries deadly costs of its own, such as drug abuse and suicide.

“We have to get our country open,” Trump said.

Zhang said it worries him that the rate of new cases is increasing at the same time some states are easing up: “We’re one country. If we’re not moving in the same step, we’re going to have a problem.”

He said he is particularly concerned about Florida and Texas, places where cases have been rising steadily and the potential for explosions seems high.

While death rates in some places have been trending down, that could change as cases rise rapidly and hospitals become overwhelmed, he said.

Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, said Tuesday that she and her colleagues keep warning state governors against “skipping phases” in federal guidelines recommending that shuttered nonessential business and other institutions, like schools, be reopened in phases.

“We don’t want to see serious illness and mortality increase,” Birx said.

In Europe, meanwhile, Britain said about 29,400 people with COVID-19 have died in its hospitals, nursing homes and other settings, while Italy reported just over 29,300 confirmed fatalities.

Both counts are probably underestimates because they do not include suspected cases. Britain reported more than 32,000 deaths in which COVID-19 was either confirmed or suspected; a comparable figure for Italy was not available.

Even so, the rate of deaths and hospitalizations in Britain was on the decline, and the government prepared to begin loosening its lockdown.

A trial began of a mobile phone app that U.K. authorities hope will help contain the outbreak by warning people if they have been near an infected individual. The government hopes it can be rolled out later this month.

Many European countries that have relaxed strict lockdowns after new infections tapered off were watching their virus numbers warily.

“We know with great certainty that there will be a second wave — the majority of scientists are sure of that. And many also assume that there will be a third wave,” said Lothar Wieler, head of Germany’s national disease control center.

South Korea reported three new cases, its lowest daily total since February, and the country’s baseball season began Tuesday with no spectators allowed.

In China, it has been three weeks since any new deaths have been reported in the country where the outbreak began late last year.

Gov. Stitt 'lacks authority' to sign new gaming compacts for state, attorney general says

Oklahoma’s top attorney says the governor doesn’t possess the power to enter the state into binding agreements with Native American tribes that authorize gaming activity prohibited by state law.

House and Senate leadership requested the opinion from Attorney General Mike Hunter following Gov. Kevin Stitt’s compacts April 21 with the Otoe-Missouria Tribe and the Comanche Nation. Each compact would permit sports betting in some of their casinos, among other matters addressed.

In addition to Tuesday’s written opinion, Hunter also sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Berhardt requesting that Berhardt reject the agreements because they aren’t authorized by the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

Hunter wrote that how a deal is consummated is one of state’s rights, not federal. Sports books aren’t allowed under Oklahoma law.

“Because the Governor lacks authority to ‘enter into’ the agreements he has sent to you, those agreements fail to meet the requirements of IGRA to constitute a valid gaming compact under federal law,” Hunter told Berhardt. “How a state enters into a gaming compact with a tribe, including whether the Governor may do so unilaterally in contravention of state statute, is a core concern of the state’s constitutional structure and is therefore a matter of state law.”

Stitt’s office in a statement called the compacts legal pursuant to federal law.

“These compacts are unquestionably legal and deliver unprecedented guarantees of clarity, stability, and transparency for all Sovereign parties, and for the benefit of all 4 million Oklahomans,” Baylee Lakey, communications director, wrote. “Governor Stitt stands with the State’s tribal partners, the Comanche Nation and Otoe-Missouria Tribe, who negotiated in good faith new, modernized gaming compacts pursuant to federal law.”

The Otoe-Missouria Tribe and the Comanche Nation released a joint statement saying the sports betting disagreement between Stitt and Hunter “is not our concern” and doesn’t affect the deals.

“Our compacts are legal and were negotiated in good faith. The political fight between the governor and the attorney general over sports betting is not our concern and does not impact the legality of the compacts,” the two tribes stated.

A three-page message April 22 from Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, and House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, lectured the first-term governor on separation of powers, the Oklahoma Constitution and the state’s Indian gaming statutes.

“While we appreciate you making us aware of your intention to sign these documents just moments before your public announcement, had you consulted us earlier we could have provided this information to you earlier,” the lawmakers wrote.

Hunter said in a statement Tuesday that Oklahoma deeply values its relationship with the tribal nations.

He said approval of the compacts Stitt signed could harm those relationships, as well as generate confusion and uncertainty about appropriate state-tribal relations.

“Their importance demands the respect of knowing that, when state officials make promises to Indian tribes, those officials have the authority to bind the State to such agreements,” Hunter said. “To do otherwise undermines the credibility and honor of the State when engaging in these sensitive inter-sovereign relations.”

Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association Chair Matthew Morgan applauded Hunter’s opinion and letter.

“As the Attorney General states and we have argued for some time, Governor Stitt does not have the authority to bind Oklahoma to his empty promises,” Morgan wrote in a statement. “Oklahoma and the Tribes deserve better than the carelessness Governor Stitt has brought to the table, and the Attorney General’s analysis encourages us that we will be able to reestablish the sort of Tribal-State engagement that conforms to the law and serves all of us well.”

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Despite Gov. Stitt's comments, decisions about schools reopening will be local

Local school boards and district administrators across Oklahoma are still studying a variety of school calendars and learning models as they plan for the 2020-21 academic year amid ongoing uncertainties related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gov. Kevin Stitt made national headlines this week when he was quoted by Fox News as saying Oklahoma was considering beginning the next school year a couple of weeks early. But his office told the Tulsa World his remark was taken out of context and acknowledged that by law, school start and end dates are decided by each local district.

“The governor’s comments regarding the start of the school year (Monday) were one of the many ideas that have been discussed during conversations with the Oklahoma State Department of Education and (State) Superintendent (Joy) Hofmeister,” said Baylee Lakey, his communications director.

Stitt’s comments were made Monday during a conference call hosted by Stephen Moore, a member of President Donald Trump’s task force to reopen the economy, that also including the governors of Georgia and Iowa.

Officials at the state Department of Education said the agency is working on some written guidance for local school leaders that should be released in the next few weeks.

“Barring anything catastrophic, calendars are going to be a local decision,” an Education Department spokeswoman said.

When the pandemic arrived in Oklahoma in March, the Oklahoma State Board of Education voted to mandate that all schools be shut down. After a couple of weeks, the state board voted to have schools resume with distance learning options with which students could engage from home through May 8 or a later date chosen by local school leaders.

The Oklahoma State School Boards Association reports that districts across the state are working on everything from plans for summer school to the start of the fall semester and backup plans for various scenarios involving the coronavirus pandemic. But little, if anything, has been decided definitively for fall.

“At the end of the day, that will be a local board of education decision on school start dates,” said Shawn Hime, executive director at OSSBA. “School superintendents and board members across the state are looking at what’s best for their students. I’ve talked to dozens of school leaders in the last week, and they’re all looking at multiple contingency plans from full in-person school to a blended approach to distance or virtual learning and everything in between.”

Tulsa Superintendent Deborah Gist told the Tulsa school board at its regular meeting Monday evening that Tulsa Public Schools is preparing to announce later this week its plan for summer school to help address students’ learning loss.

But work is still ongoing on TPS’ plan for the next academic year.

“We are taking a close look at what the 2020-21 school year might look like. We are in a different world now. … Just like districts across the country and other school systems around the globe, we’re thinking about how we implement school safely in the coming months and maybe beyond,” Gist said.

“I want to make sure that the board and Tulsans know we are also working closely with health officials. We are considering options, and we will certainly be back in person learning as soon as our public health officials determine it is wise.”

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