OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt is hopeful for an improved relationship with his fellow Republicans in the Legislature when the 2021 session begins Monday after an acrimonious split last year over a breakdown in budget negotiations.
The mortgage company CEO-turned-governor was able to accomplish much of his legislative agenda during his first year in office, including a broad expansion of his appointment powers that gave him firmer control over state agencies.
“Oklahomans elected a business person as their governor, and they want more for their money,” Stitt said.
But the relationship grew strained last year during a breakdown in budget talks, and the Legislature ended up overriding the governor’s vetoes to approve a budget.
Since last session ended, Stitt has overhauled much of his top staff and met with top legislative leaders in an attempt to smooth things over, but he’s also forged ahead with some initiatives over the objections of GOP lawmakers, including a plan to relocate the state’s public health laboratory and to privatize a large portion of the state’s Medicaid operations.
Stitt said he met over during the interim with House Speaker Charles McCall and Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat “to create a people’s agenda. Not a governor’s agenda or a House or Senate agenda, but a people’s agenda.”
Stitt will deliver his proposed executive budget to lawmakers on Monday and deliver his State of the State address to formally kick off the 2021 session.
Stitt has tried to balance dealing with the coronavirus pandemic — which has infected nearly 390,000 and killed more than 3,500 people in Oklahoma — and an aggressive reopening of the state’s economy that faced criticism from many in the medical community for moving to quickly. A number of bills have been introduced this year that would limit how much power the governor has to respond during a health emergency, including restrictions on things like mask mandates and shutting down businesses and houses of worship.
Like every year, reaching a deal on the budget will be the top priority for lawmakers, who will have to come up with an estimated $165 million annually to pay for the state’s share of an expansion of Medicaid that state voters narrowly approved in July. The cost could be considerably higher given the number of people who lost their jobs during the pandemic. The good news is that the dire financial predictions made last year amid massive business closures and a slump in energy prices haven’t been as bad as expected, and lawmakers will actually have about 8% more to spend on next year’s budget. While lawmakers will have an estimated $631 million more to spend this year, they will also have to make up for about $1 billion in “one-time” revenue sources that were used to build this year’s budget that won’t be available next year. Treat and Stitt have both predicted a relatively flat budget next year.
Oklahoma’s elections ran smoothly last year, but the state’s voter turnout was among the lowest in the nation. Lawmakers have introduced numerous bills, most of which would make it easier to vote early or by mail.
At least one Republican state senator has a proposal to make mail voting more difficult. State Sen. Rob Standridge, a Republican from Norman, has introduced a proposal seeking to amend the state constitution to limit the ability of anyone to request an absentee ballot. If approved by voters, the proposal would restrict absentee voting to only those who have a work conflict, physical disability or for the observance of a religious holiday.
Oklahoma also let expire a pandemic-related voting change that allowed voters casting ballots by mail to include a photo copy of their identification, rather than having their ballot notarized.
“I think the more people participating the better, but you have to do it in a safe manner where you minimize or eliminate fraud to the best of your ability,” said Treat, a Republican from Oklahoma City.
HOT BUTTON ISSUES
Legislators have introduced a number of bills to criminalize abortion, expand the carrying and use of firearms and to increase penalties for protests that lead to violence or property damage. Among the firearms bills are measures that would allow guns on college campuses and inside the state Capitol, make it easier for public school teachers to carry weapons and expand the allowable use of deadly force.