Lawmakers narrowly approved changes to the law that allows the governor to declare a “catastrophic health emergency” during Wednesday’s floor votes, despite objections from critics who said the bill was too restrictive of local officials’ response in future pandemics.
Senate Bill 1102, by Rep. Kevin West, modifies the Catastrophic Health Emergency Powers Act, a law that significantly expanded Gov. Kevin Stitt’s authority during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If we do pass this, then we will be increasing the legislative input and communication with the governor,” said West, R-Moore. “We will also know exactly what powers he’s planning to utilize for this next emergency so that we can better communicate to our constituents what is going on.”
The bill would require the governor to notify the Legislature of requested powers prior to a catastrophic health emergency declaration and require itemized reporting to lawmakers every 10 days upon activation of emergency powers.
The bill also clarifies that the law allows for the management of state property during a health emergency, and modifies the membership of the Oklahoma Catastrophic Health Emergency Planning Task Force to include members of the Legislature.
The legislation also adds language declaring that the “right of people to civil rights, liberty, bodily integrity, and privacy must be respected and consistent with maintaining and preserving the health and security of the public during a catastrophic health emergency.”
The bill also allows the State Election Board to promulgate emergency rules for safely conducting elections during future health emergencies.
However, several lawmakers objected to a provision dealing with the power of local mayors or county government officials. During a catastrophic health emergency, SB 1102 gives the governor “the power to grant local officials certain clearly defined authorities.”
“It literally requires local mayors to go hat-in-hand to big government to beg permission to do what they believe is best for their own constituents,” said Rep. Andy Fugate, D-Oklahoma City. “And to add insult in injury, it doesn’t provide any kind of due process if the governor says no.”
“The governor, under this bill, has an absolute veto power,” said Rep. Ben Loring, D-Miami. “If he doesn’t want to do it—he or she doesn’t want to do it—it doesn’t happen, regardless of what the local government entity thinks needs to be done.”
Rep. Monroe Nichols, D-Tulsa, gave credit for Oklahoma’s low rate of COVID-19 infection to mayors who acted to shut down businesses before a statewide order restricted those activities.
West responded that “change can be scary,” but added that the bill provides local officials more authority and input in some instances. He said the bill strikes a balance between extremes.
“It strikes that balance, right in the middle, to where the Legislature knows what the governor is wanting to do, the people know what the governor is wanting to do,” West said.
SB 1102 passed the Oklahoma House of Representatives on a 53-44 vote with both Democrats and Republicans split on the issue. A bill must receive 51 votes to pass out of the House.
SB 1102 now proceeds to the Oklahoma Senate.