Economy , Family & Community

Ray Carter | May 5, 2020

Health emergency extended, but lawmakers say change is needed

Ray Carter

Both chambers of the Oklahoma Legislature voted Tuesday during special session to extend the state declaration of a “catastrophic health emergency” (CHE) for another 30 days.

But lawmakers indicated they may change the law that authorizes the declaration to address shortcomings identified during the COVID-19 pandemic. And legislative leaders also indicated regulatory changes made as the result of the governor’s emergency powers may need to be made permanent in state law.

Senate Concurrent Resolution 1X extends the state declaration of a “catastrophic health emergency,” providing Gov. Kevin Stitt with a continuance of expanded executive power during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unlike the authorization approved by lawmakers in April, the new version includes a requirement for the governor to provide legislators with documentation showing which executive orders are based on the powers granted through the declaration.

Even as they approved the legislation, however, lawmakers also voiced support for changing the law that authorizes the declaration.

“One of the fundamental problems with this statute is the statute is an all-or-nothing approach,” said House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City. “Think of the statute like a buffet where you go and you have access to everything. Well, we all know in the COVID-19 area, buffet’s got to change. And what we want to do is change this statute so it’s more of a menu, and the governor doesn’t have an objection to that. The Senate is on board.”

Echols predicted that “before we get out of session we will end up working out some bills” that change the emergency-declaration law so that legislators don’t have to “grant everything or you grant nothing.”

“I think everybody agrees it needs to be a menu: I’ll give you these things, but not these things,” Echols said.

Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, said the extension was requested by the governor to have the flexibility to address several issues, including unemployment benefits, testing/contact tracing for COVID-19, and ensuring that first responders can be provided the COVID-19 status of citizens under certain circumstances.

While federal law allows the sharing of citizens’ COVID-19 status with first responders, there is disagreement over whether state law allows such sharing, Treat said.

“What I would ask this body to consider is clarifying that in statute, and once we do that I would feel much more comfortable terminating the CHE,” Treat said.

House Democrats complained the governor has not communicated with lawmakers and shared how he will specifically use his emergency powers.

“We’re doing a lot of trusting and we’re not being given the opportunity to do a lot of verifying,” said Rep. Forrest Bennett, D-Oklahoma City.

Echols said the governor “has done good things with the power that we’ve given him” so far, but suggested lawmakers could revise existing state law so there would be less need for an emergency declaration in the future.

“I do think he’s done a good job on the policy stuff,” Echols said. “Could we come in and do that ourselves? Yes, we can. And yes, we should. I think everything he’s done we need to eventually make permanent.”

However, Rep. Kevin West noted the current circumstances require a rapid response that can only occur with an emergency declaration.

“With these powers, that gives the governor the ability to quickly make some ‘on the field’ decisions that need to be made for the health of Oklahomans,” said West, R-Moore.

He added that “even with us being in session, we would have a hard time responding anywhere near as quick as what might be needed.”

Rep. Collin Walke, D-Oklahoma City, said many of the executive orders issued by Stitt that have been identified as crucial to the state’s COVID-19 response were issued prior to legislative authorization of a “catastrophic health emergency” declaration.

“When you ask me why I oppose this bill, it’s real easy,” Walke said. “Show me one thing the governor has done that’s been productive since then under these powers. That can’t be done.”

“What you’re hearing from us is not that we necessarily disagree with the policy actions that have been taken,” said House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman. “It’s just that we disagree that this action is necessary to ensure the continuation of those actions.”

Echols said approval of the “catastrophic health emergency” provided legal certainty for some gubernatorial actions.

“All of the things I listed were issued before the CHE,” Echols said. “I’m not positive absent the CHE, though, those were valid executive orders.”

SCR 1X passed the Oklahoma House of Representatives on a 73-24 vote and passed the Senate 43-4.

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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