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Local & Regional

State lawmakers call special session over pandemic relief funds

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Jeff Raymond / Oklahoma Watch
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Oklahoma lawmakers have called a special session to give themselves more control over the $1.8 billion in federal pandemic relief the state has to spend under the American Rescue Plan Act. (Oklahoma Watch file)

Oklahoma lawmakers called themselves into a special session on Wednesday to give them additional powers over the direction of $1.87 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds under the American Rescue Plan Act.

The concurrent special session comes as the Legislature continues to vote on a package of spending bills for a $9.7 billion budget unveiled late Monday. The special session will allow lawmakers to come back after the regular session to enact a spending plan for the relief funds.

Oklahoma accepted applications for the relief funds through an online portal from October to April 1. The state received more than $17.8 billion funding requests across 1,400 projects. More than $3.7 billion in requests came from state agencies alone.

The Legislature’s Joint Committee on Pandemic Relief has approved some initial applications in recent months dealing with broadband and workforce development for health care. Under the current process, the governor still has final approval over spending the relief money.

The Stitt administration has deemed all applications for the funding a secret under a determination by the state purchasing director. After being denied records in February, Oklahoma Watch filed an open records lawsuit last month against the Office of Management and Enterprise Services. The agency has not yet responded in court.

Shadow budget

The latest round of pandemic relief funding in Oklahoma has effectively been run as a shadow budget. Only top lawmakers on the joint committee and the governor’s office know what has been requested. The state has until the end of 2024 to allocate the money. It must be spent by the end of 2026. So far, the state has received $935 million to spend. The other half has not yet arrived from the federal government.

Other states are significantly ahead of Oklahoma in spending the latest round of federal pandemic relief. Stitt has approved funding for two projects, House Speaker Pro Tempore Kyle Hilbert, R-Bristow, said in a media briefing Wednesday evening. One expands pediatric behavioral health beds at OU Children’s Hospital in Oklahoma City. The other goes to mapping for broadband expansion.

The new process for pandemic relief will function more like a regular budget appropriation, said Senate Majority Floor Leader Greg McCortney, R-Ada.

“Every ARPA dollar is going to go through a filed bill that is going to be debated by both chambers and sent to the governor for his signature,” McCortney said Wednesday evening.

McCortney and Hilbert said the concurrent special session in the next few days will bring up bills with placeholder amounts for pandemic relief funding that will be voted on and amended by both chambers. The chambers plan to reject each other’s amendments, keeping the bills alive in the special session for later conference committees. That will allow lawmakers to come back in the interim to finalize the bills and send them to the governor.

The Legislature’s joint committee and several working groups have evaluated applications to address the health and economic fallout from the pandemic. Broadband improvements and water and sewer improvements are also eligible for funding under the law.

“Oklahoma established a strong process, driven by the public, to place the legislative and executive branches in a partnership to listen to the public’s wishes for ARPA dollars,” House Speaker Charles McCall said Wednesday. “This action simply keeps that train on track.”

In a statement, Stitt said he appreciated the Legislature’s “commitment to work through the summer to distribute ARPA funds with full transparency.”

“I expect comprehensive, strategic ideas that make a generational impact rather than the piecemeal projects driven by special interests and lobbyists,” Stitt said Wednesday.

Several House Democrats said they were glad to see the Legislature take back some control over the direction of the pandemic relief funding.

“House Democrats have consistently warned against giving the executive branch excessive authority,” said House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman. “Today, legislative Republicans listened and are now calling for a special session to reclaim Gov. Stitt’s unchecked authority.

“Throughout the last month, media reports have shown that the Stitt administration is not up to the task of ensuring taxpayer money is spent properly. It is apparent that the governor’s own safeguards have not been effective enough to ensure his cabinet members and appointees do their job to protect tax dollars,” Virgin said.

Economic development incentives

The concurrent special session will also cover appropriations for a massive incentive package thought to attract battery maker Panasonic. The deal, dubbed Project Ocean, involves $698 million under the Large-scale Economic Activity and Development Act. The legislative budget appropriation bill unveiled this week doesn’t include that pot of money, which is instead coming from existing state savings.

“We are confident Project Ocean will choose Oklahoma, but should it not, this mechanism allows for the legislative action necessary for the allocated funds to be quickly recaptured,” Hilbert said in a news release Wednesday afternoon.

Republican lawmakers also added another new economic development incentive to the special session. The legislative budget agreement includes $250 million for rural economic development that may pay for upgrades at rural industrial parks.

“The details of how to best deploy that $250 million in a way that helps make all of Oklahoma competitive for future economic megaprojects remain under discussion and, once finalized, can be codified in this session,” said Senate Appropriations Vice Chairman Chuck Hall, R-Perry.

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Oklahoma Watch
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Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public-policy issues facing the state.