The first session of the 58th Oklahoma legislature begins in four weeks, and lawmakers have their work cut out for them.
House Speaker Charles McCall (R-Atoka) said one of the top priorities is finding a way to pay for Medicaid expansion after voters approved it through State Question 802 last June.
"That is now in our state’s constitution, although by a very razor-thin margin, nevertheless, the legislature has to be prepared to come back this session and address the issue of Medicaid expansion in the state of Oklahoma," McCall said.
Medicaid expansion will happen July 1 at the latest, and the state’s 10% share of the costs will run around $160 million. Extra money will be hard to come by because while an initial projection shows the state budget will have about 10% more to spend, the total budget is still smaller than before the 2008 recession in adjusted dollars.
House Minority Leader Emily Virgin (D-Oklahoma City) said with the coronavirus pandemic still raging across the state, agencies like the Oklahoma Health Care Authority and Department of Human Services must be shielded from cuts.
"Our caucus is going to be focused on, in a tough budget year, making sure that we don’t cut those core services that people are depending on now more than ever," Virgin said.
Senate Minority Leader Kay Floyd (D-Oklahoma City) said lawmakers need a comprehensive response to the pandemic, including a solution for K–12 schools.
"The way it’s affected education and the virtual learning versus in-school learning, and the strain and the stress that’s had on parents and educators and business. We can’t keep doing this ebb and flow where they’re in school, they’re out of school, they’re in school, they’re out of school," Floyd said.
Many districts have tried to return to return in person but reverted to distance learning when quick community spread of COVID-19 put too many teachers and staff in quarantine or isolation to hold school.
Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat (R-Oklahoma City) is hoping lawmakers can find time for actions that will help the state’s economy less dependent upon the energy industry.
"We as a state have given – I don’t want to say ‘lip service,’ because there’s been a real effort and we’ve made some strides – but talking about diversifying our economy so we’re not so dependent on our No. 1 industry in oil and gas. It’s going to be important for the long haul," Treat said.
The legislative session begins Feb. 1.