This past week my fellow members and I returned to the Capitol for the first session activity since March 17th, the day we learned a staffer had tested positive for COVID-19. The building was closed for deep cleaning, and legislators, along with staff, were all asked to continue working remotely. We’ve stayed connected by phone, videoconferences and by email, continuing to work to address the pandemic and other issues related to the session—in particular, the state budget.
But this past Monday, we convened at the Capitol to meet in a special session which was triggered when the governor declared a statewide health emergency. It was our responsibility to affirm or deny that declaration, which gives the governor temporarily expanded powers to help Oklahoma better respond to the virus. Both chambers affirmed the action, but as an additional check and balance, the resolution approving the health emergency declaration included a provision that legislative leaders would be given prior notice by the governor before any specific statutes or regulations were suspended under the declaration.
In order for us to meet at the Capitol again, several safety procedures were put in place. Our temperatures were checked to make sure none of us had a fever, and we used masks that had been made by a Senate staffer. We had to take turns coming into the chamber in small groups to debate or vote in order to adhere to social distancing recommendations. Most of our staff and our executive assistants were directed to continue working remotely to further limit the number of people within the building.
After concluding the special session agenda, we reconvened the regular session to deal with the $416 million revenue failure in the current budget. Long before the 2020 legislative session began, we knew state revenues were going to be impacted by the downturn in oil and gas prices. I think most of you are aware of how the pandemic has further stricken our state’s economy and the revenues that fund core services, including health care, education, public safety and more.
I’ve also told you how important it was that we saved an additional $200 million last year which brought our total emergency savings to a historic $1 billion. We approved tapping those resources in order to offset the revenue failure, with funds still available to help us as we continue to work on the 2021 fiscal year budget.
The legislation we passed to make the 2020 budget whole was overwhelmingly approved in both chambers with bipartisan support. As our state agencies continue to work to deliver services during this pandemic, we believe it is critical for them to receive the resources they were counting on.
In addition, the Senate waived certain rules so that for the remainder of this session and the special session, we’ll have the flexibility to conduct official business remotely or virtually in committee meetings and floor proceedings, while still following health recommendations for social distancing. The final plans will be made public and we will ensure citizens can follow those proceedings online.
Oklahoma has not yet seen the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, so I urge everyone to continue following health guidelines regarding handwashing, social distancing. If you come into direct contact with anyone who tests positive for the virus or if you begin to exhibit symptoms, including coughing, trouble breathing or fever, self-isolate and contact your health care provider or call 2-1-1 to get tested.
I thank you for the privilege of being your voice at the State Capitol. If you have any questions or concerns about legislation or other issues at the state level, please feel free to call 405-521-5528, or email James.Leewright@oksenate.gov.