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State Lawmakers From Both Parties Question Stitt's Move On State Health Lab

Youtube / Oklahoma State Department of Health
Gov. Kevin Stitt at an Oct. 7 press conference announcing his administration's Oklahoma Pandemic Center for Innovation and Excellence initiative.

Republican and Democratic state lawmakers are both expressing concern over Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt's announcement last week that the state's public health lab will be moved from Oklahoma City to Stillwater, using a combination of state funds and federal coronavirus relief funding.

In a Monday press release, Rep. Ryan Martinez (R-Edmond) said he would be filing legislation to keep the lab in the state capital and "question[ed] if this is the best use of CARES Act funds."

Reached by phone Wednesday, Martinez said he first heard about the plan on the news.

"I was more shocked than anything," Martinez said. 

"Pretty quickly afterwards, I started receiving emails from constituents that had worked at the lab for quite some time, and it appeared that nobody at the lab had been informed until the day that it was announced, as well," Martinez said. "I thought that was problematic."

Martinez said he thinks Stitt is "a great guy and his intentions are pure," but that "it shouldn't be something where just one person says, 'Hey, this is a good idea, I'm going to spend $25 million on something.'"

"I can't think of a time where such a big move for a state asset and taxpayer dollars were used for something without consulting the legislature, or even just talking about if this is a good or bad idea," Martinez said.

House Democratic Minority Leader Emily Virgin, of Norman, issued a statement on Monday calling on the governor to hold a bipartisan presentation about the move, a demand Martinez said Wednesday he also supports.

"It is extremely rare for a single person, even a governor, to have the ability to unilaterally make the decision to close, remodel and rebuild a state asset, using millions of taxpayer dollars, without any direct input from the public or state employees who serve the agency," Virgin said. "It may be unprecedented in Oklahoma."

The Oklahoma Public Employees Association issued a Wednesday statement saying "It makes no sense to locate this lab outside the metro. The employees tell us it is critical to be near other OSDH units and the hospitals. For instance, some of the staff perform DNA analysis on blood samples of every newborn (with rare religious exception) in the state. Being centralized, they can receive, process and send out results quickly.

"This will be an ongoing issue. OPEA is in communication with key legislators on the situation."

The moving of the laboratory is part of the state's Oklahoma Pandemic Center for Innovation and Excellence initiative announced last week. The project is meant to be a multi-agency effort with a campus in Stillwater contributing to future pandemic research and response. 

Interim State Health Commissioner Col. Lance Frye said at the news conference that the current lab is "antiquated." 

The governor's office did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Chris joined Public Radio Tulsa as a news anchor and reporter in April 2020. He’s a graduate of Hunter College and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, both at the City University of New York.
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