The Oklahoma House finished on Monday fast-tracked passage of legislation reinstating virtual public meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The House approved Senate Bill 1031 on 88–5 vote, and the Senate sent it to Gov. Kevin Stitt. It will take effect immediately if signed.
The virtual meetings provision of the state Open Meeting Act expired almost three months ago, and public bodies have needed an in-person quorum since. SB1031 will let them meet virtually until Feb. 15, 2022, or 30 days after Stitt’s emergency declaration ends, whichever comes first.
During questions on the bill, Rep. Regina Goodwin (D-Tulsa) asked why House Republicans didn’t do the same for the legislature when they adopted rules for the session.
"Why is it that we are caring enough about our fellow citizens there and we’re not taking measures here within this body to meet virtually as we are allowed to do and even vote by proxy as we were allowed to do when COVID is even more dangerous?" Goodwin said.
Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols said that wasn’t something his caucus thought necessary and added the bill may have been in trouble if it applied only to government bodies.
"This also applies to nonprofit entities that are required to comply by the Open Meeting Act. I don’t know absent those nonprofit entities that this bill would have the votes to pass," Echols said.
The five votes against the bill came from Republicans: Reps. Tom Gann (Inola), Ryan Martinez (Edmond), Kevin McDugle (Broken Arrow), Jim Olsen (Roland) and Todd Russ (Cordell).
The bill makes some other virtual meeting–related tweaks to the Open Meeting Act, like requiring documents available to members of a body for a meeting to be posted online, though Rep. Andy Fugate (D-Del City) noted there’s no minimum amount of time those documents must be available. Echols said that will be addressed.
"There will be another bill coming with some more things like that to have the process run smoother and be far more transparent than I think it is now," Echols said.
Trailer bills will also make the virtual meetings provision retroactive to when it expired Nov. 15. Rep. Jim Grego (R-Wilburton) said virtual meetings never stopped in his district because there are no young people serving on boards and commissions.
"So, what we’re left with is elderly retirees to serve on these boards and commissions, and they’re the ones that are most vulnerable to this coronavirus," Grego said.
Rep. Forrest Bennett (D-Oklahoma City) asked why the bill didn’t implement a trigger for virtual meetings rather than allow them for another year. Echols said that could be addressed by amending existing law letting the governor take certain actions by declaring a health emergency.
"We already have a statute dealing with that. This should be one of the types of things specifically listed that the governor could just do. Then we don’t the issue of whether or not we have to come into a special session," Echols said.