With both chambers of the legislature working late into the night throughout the week, our state government saw some ugly discourse and a commitment to stave off progress with the power of a pen.
Late last Wednesday, Gov. Stitt vetoed over a dozen bills as a punitive measure towards the Oklahoma State Senate. He vowed to continue to veto any and all legislation by Senate authors who did not support his plan to give tax credits for private schools.
He claimed that the people of Oklahoma support the plan; however, polls overwhelmingly show that people are opposed to the school voucher scheme.
These antics are dangerous for Oklahomans, fueling inflammatory rhetoric across the country that only harms those most vulnerable in our state.
Some of the bills that were axed out of spite:
Senate Bills (SB) 711 and 712 would have provided greater access to Narcan and other life-saving opioid medications to people suffering from an overdose. Both bills were passed unanimously in either chamber but vetoed by Gov. Stitt out of punishment towards the authors.
Another bill that was passed unanimously across the rotunda, SB 395 would have created an income tax refund donation option for Oklahomans recovering from a natural disaster. As a state that has already suffered from multiple types of storm damage, initiatives like this could also be lifesaving.
While only a few examples, these bills were all voted through our legislative process unanimously, by elected leaders from both parties across the state. However, due to the Governor’s intent to divert funding from public education, many good pieces of legislation will suffer as collateral.
These bills could have had life-saving impacts. Hundreds of people die each year from opioid related overdoses. Addiction destroys countless lives every year, and medications like Narcan have been used for many years by first responders and in emergency rooms. Greater access would provide people with the opportunity for life and to find avenues for addiction aid.
Oklahoma has already lost loved ones to tornadoes, snowstorms, and more just this year. Our infrastructure has proven incapable of supporting such weather. SB 395 would have provided at least some relief and created a better path to future remedies.
However, before even getting a chance to sit on the Governor’s desk, hundreds of bills had their last chance to be heard before Thursday afternoon (or evening) Third Reading Deadline.
On the House floor:
SB 429, authored by Sen. John Montgomery and Rep. Trey Caldwell, passed the Senate with 1 no vote from Rep. Olsen, who followed up with some commentary regarding the nature of the bill. Oklahoma, and the United States, are all Native grounds, plain and simple. The bill would ensure that Native American students are allowed to wear their tribal regalia at graduation ceremonies – a right protected by the First Amendment, but often infringed upon by school districts unaware of the significance of cultural dress for major ceremonies. This bill is a small step towards recognition and respect after a legacy of genocide and forced assimilation plague our nation.
SB 193, a bill that aims to provide six weeks paid maternity leave for full-time female employees of the state after a child is born or adopted, passed the House. However, this was not without a vast amount of debate. It previously received backlash in other hearings, where maternity leave was referred to as a “paid vacation” by Senator Jett. During the House debate, there were questions on comparable incentives to those who do not have children. Rep. Archer highlighted how many mothers are forced out of jobs due to lack of support in childcare opportunities.
Worldwide, the International Labor Organization allocates a minimum of 12-week maternity leave, with 14 weeks recommended.
119 countries meet this standard, with only 31 mandating less. In the United States, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) does align with this standard, but it is only applicable to companies with 50 or more employees. It’s not news that women are paid less across all fields, and it is purely common sense, as mentioned by Rep. Bennett, for us to have such laws.
Oklahoma currently ranks 40th in maternal mortality and has a 25% higher infant mortality rate than the national average.
A highly contentious bill, SB 404 also passed last week. It claims to protect religious minority groups by preventing any exemptions for governmental funds, programs, or exemptions based solely on religious character or affiliation. Titled the “Oklahoma Religious Freedom Act” the bill is sponsored by the Archdiocese and several other Catholic and Protestant groups. With 27 No votes and a hefty amount of debate, there were many skeptics that this would inhibit religious freedom and aid those majority religions sponsoring the bill.
The beginning of legislative session saw several bills filed that attacked freedom of expression and access to healthcare for various groups across our state. While many of those bills became dormant, others lived on in shucked bills, where other language is replaced by the new proposed bill.
One bill, SB 1056, seeks to “define standards and conditions of adult performances” and the presence of minors. There is already legislation in place regarding obscene material, and the language of this bill only serves to target freedom of expression in performances.
SB 397 would require schools to appoint committees to categorize materials into age groups, and subject final rules to Legislative approval. This is one of many bills that designate decisions in education and healthcare to legislators. We elect people to vote for better policy, not to make decisions over healthcare professionals and educators. Since it was voted through with amendments, it will have to get those amendments approved by the Senate before progressing.
A bill that many advocacy groups were anxiously waiting to see if it would get heard was heavily debated last Thursday. SB 613 seeks to prohibit gender affirming care for minors. The language of the bill encompasses any procedures that alter “features that are typical for the individuals’ biological sex”. In addition to being incredibly vague, the bill also prohibits puberty-blocking drugs. Gender affirming care saves lives. Furthermore, families and their doctors should be making these decisions privately, not being restricted by state statutes regulating what can and cannot happen at a doctor’s appointment.
On the Senate side:
Last week saw many late nights for the Senate, in addition to the Rules Committee hearing right after floor on Thursday until well past 9pm.
However, a couple of bills did pass with unanimous consent. One such example is House Bill (HB) 2041, a good step for criminal justice and police issues. Authored by Rep. Monroe Nichols and Sen. Greg Treat, it would allow law enforcement officers to issue a verbal warning for an outstanding warrant instead of going straight for an arrest.
Another unanimous win in the Senate, HB 2422 by freshman Rep. Alonso-Sandoval and Sen. Bill Coleman, would create an Interstate Compact for Emergency Medical Services (EMS). It would also allow license reciprocity across participating states so paramedics could have better patient care across state lines. Oklahoma is already suffering from low-staffing and response time with EMS agencies, this would help broaden the capacity for care in our state.
HB 1397 aims to require the Department of Education to develop curriculum on the Civil Rights Movement and “injustices committed outside of the United States”. Sen. Matthews inquired whether any African American legislator had been consulted prior to authoring it, which was not positively confirmed.
There are already schools teaching about the Civil Rights Movement, but the promotion of this bill with its language in conjunction with HB 1775, passed last year, would put limits on the accuracy of teaching history. HB 1775 prohibits teaching where anyone might feel discomfort on account of race. Education should challenge students to think and learn outside their comfort zone.
Learning about history and race can be uncomfortable. It is important for the United States and Oklahoma to acknowledge its racist past, or we will never be Top 10.
HB 2792, also passed from the Senate Floor, would create plain language forms for various proceedings, including eviction notices. This is a great step, as it would create ease of access for several life-changing and potentially life-threatening notices. It has been sent to the Governor’s desk and awaits review.
There were a few bills that we were tracking that went quickly from the Senate and House floors straight to the Governor’s desk for a potential signature.
Signed, Sealed, Delivered:
HB 1036: Create a Veteran Suicide Task Force. Heard on Senate Floor, 04/20 passed unanimously, signed by Gov. Stitt 04/28.
SB 292: Require standards on syphilis testing during pregnancies. Heard on House Floor 04/20, Signed by Gov. Stitt 04/28.
SB 1000: Authorize Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation (OSBI) to investigate sexual assault evidence kits that have not been processed within a certain time. Heard on House Floor 04/20, signed by Gov. Sitt 04/28.