OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma Legislature granted the governor unprecedented powers Monday allowing him to suspend any rules and laws necessary during the state’s COVID-19 outbreak for the next 30 days.
Lawmakers also agreed to allocate nearly $416 million from the state’s savings funds to shore up the failing budget in a bid to protect Oklahoma’s agencies and education system from deep cuts.
Legislators, meanwhile, said they likely will be back next month to extend the Catastrophic Health Emergency Powers Act for additional 30 days if the virus’ outbreak hasn’t subsided.
“I believe we will give him a great deal of power because we have faith in him to do what’s best for the citizens of Oklahoma,” said Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City. It marked the first time in state history lawmakers have authorized the state’s equivalent of a wartime powers act.
On Monday, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases jumped to 1,327. The number of deaths increased to 51 while 340 Oklahomans have been hospitalized.
Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt told lawmakers he initially intends to use the authority to protect first responders by notifying them of potential exposure risks before going to homes with known COVID-19 patients; to create additional hospital beds or ICU beds if the state exceeds capacity; to designate state Commissioner of Health as the primary public health authority; to exempt the Oklahoma National Guard from any state, county or municipal quarantine orders; and to enforce an order banning non-necessary medical procedures.
It also gives Stitt access to up to $50 million in state funds and could give him the authority to scrap the state’s open meetings and open records acts. Legislators also noted the authority theoretically gives him the ability to overturn any restrictions implemented by municipalities during the crisis.
Echols said the Republican-controlled Legislature would not respond well if Stitt told mayors how to run their towns. He said the Legislature retained the ability to revoke Stitt’s new authority at any time.
“There always has to be a check to power,” he said.
Voting was slow Monday as lawmakers sought to avoid each other as much as possible in an effort to prevent spreading the virus. Lawmakers from both chambers were screened for fever before they were allowed to enter the Capitol. Once inside, they were ordered to remain in their offices until it was their turn to vote in small groups or go to the chambers individually to ask questions.
More than a dozen members of the House didn’t even come, choosing instead to cast votes by proxy.
Echols said the health emergency law passed Monday technically allows Stitt to use the National Guard almost limitlessly in the next 30 days, but said right now state officials are looking at deploying them to small county jails or state prisons if there’s a major outbreak. The citizen military could be called upon to serve as guards.
“I can agree that we’re in a health emergency,” said state Rep. Tommy Hardin, R-Madill. But, he questioned whether it’s a catastrophic health emergency.
Hardin, the lone House member to vote against the measure, asked if Oklahomans would take such declarations less seriously in the future.
“I fear by implementing this plan, it will cause more harm than good,” he said.
Hardin said he’s also concerned the Legislature would have no direct oversight over the state Department of Health.
“There’s lots of reasons for concern,” Echols said before the vote. “Whatever any member does, they shouldn’t do it lightly today.”
The measure, though, flew through the state Senate with little fanfare.
State Sen. Nathan Dahm, R-Broken Arrow, said he voted against it because he doesn’t believe the situation meets the definition required for a critical health emergency.
He also doesn’t agree with the possibility of sharing individual health records. And, Dahm said, he doesn’t like the overall lack of legislative oversight.
“While there is the option for the (Senate president) pro tem and the speaker to have some oversight, there is minimal to no opportunities for other members to keep in check the open-ended powers expanded by enacting the (catastrophic health emergency),” he said.
But House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman, said her caucus unanimously concurred that the emergency declaration was necessary in the face of the global pandemic.
“This was not a decision that our caucus took lightly, and in the end, we voted for the best option available to face this crisis,” she said in a statement.