Week 15 Legislative Recap

Congratulations! We made it to the end of another legislative session. The final week of meetings for the governing body of the state of Oklahoma was fraught with tension, with vetoes and overrides coming to a dramatic conclusion at the end of the week. Although we will see the legislature meeting again for special sessions (more on that later), the general session is over and campaigns will be ramping up.

Criminal Justice

This legislative session has been a mixed bag in terms of reforms to our criminal legal system. The work of dedicated advocates has been paying off as slow measures pass to protect the rights of criminal defendants, make encounters with law enforcement and the criminal legal system less fatal, and ease reentry into society for offenders who have served their time. HB 3002, authored by Rep. Cyndi Munson, was signed into law, making it easier for formerly incarcerated individuals to attain professional licensure and advance in their careers. A similar measure in the Senate, SB 1691, makes conviction or pending criminal charges only grounds for immediate denial of a state license or certification if the crime in question significantly relates to the business or occupation for which the applicant is to work. Measures that make it easier for formerly incarcerated individuals to obtain professional work are beneficial to the community.

HB 3053, which makes it possible for offenders that have successfully completed drug court to have their sentence deferred if it was their first felony, in addition to possibly having their cases dismissed, was endorsed by the Governor. A bill authored by Rep. John Talley, HB 3205, removes some fees associated with juvenile offenses, ensuring that a juvenile record cannot follow a person into adulthood and continue to negatively affect their life. Rep. Collin Walke and Sen. Kay Floyd wrote and co-sponsored HB 3957 to make courtroom interpreters more accessible and affordable to defendants who may not speak sufficient English to understand the proceedings. Rep. Waldron’s HB 4369, signed into law, makes parole more accessible to offenders within a certain time frame of the completion of their sentence.

However, we also saw some less positive criminal justice measures pass with the Governor’s approval. Increases in fines and fees leveled against defendants – those who have been charged, but not yet convicted, of a crime – mean that the poor and indigent are more likely to be held hostage for failure to pay the fines and fees that quicky rack up when they are charged with a crime, even if they are not convicted. A number of marijuana-related measures, intended to walk back the voter-approved expansion of access to medical marijuana, passed, including SB 1367, which enhances penalties for the unlawful diversion of medical marijuana products to a person not legally allowed to acquire or consume them, providing for fines and license revocation.

Budget and Appropriations

The major activity of the last few weeks of the legislative session involves the budget and appropriations. The state budget determines how much funding the state government will have to function. (For a primer on the state budget process, click here: https://okpolicy.org/resources/online-budget-guide/budget-process/ ) At the beginning of a legislative session, the Governor will issue a budget proposal:

“The Governor’s proposed budget, also known as the Executive Budget, is an extensive document with funding recommendations for every state agency. An executive summary at the beginning of the budget states the Governor’s policy priorities, major changes in recommended agency funding, and recommended changes in state revenues. This section also includes the Governor’s recommended capital budget, which includes major construction projects. The document includes useful information such as revenue histories and estimates, employees allocated to each agency, and recent performance and spending of each agency.” (From Oklahoma Policy Institute, https://okpolicy.org/resources/online-budget-guide/budget-process/budget-process/governors-budget/ )

The legislature will then spend their time between early February until late May developing a budget that can win approval of a majority of both chambers and be signed by the Governor.

This year, the legislature’s proposed budget increased funding for some state agencies, notably for salary adjustments at the Department of Corrections and an increase in funding to the Department of Human Services to eliminate the waiting list for adults with disabilities. However, the budget remained flat for the Department of Education, which many educators in the legislature decried as insufficient for the needs of Oklahoma’s public school students. The legislature also included HB 4473 and HB 4474 address inflation as well as a bill to spend funds allocated from the federal government via the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).

On Thursday, May 26, Governor Stitt vetoed a number of appropriations bills, including the Inflation Relief bills and another measure that would have eliminated sales taxes on vehicles. During the press conference at which he announced his intention to veto these bills, he called the legislature into a special session, demanding that they consider eliminating the grocery sales tax as well as cutting state income taxes, claiming that these cuts would save families up to $450 a year.

Governor Stitt also failed to sign SB 1040, the General Appropriations bill, signaling his discontent with the role the Governor plays in the budget. When the legislature sends a bill to the Governor, he has five days to sign, veto, or line-item veto (reject portions of the bill and keep others). Without his signature, a bill will still become law, but it will be sent for enrollment by the Secretary of State without the signature that shows the governor’s approval of the measure.

Sine Die; Legislature vs. Governor

By statute, the legislature is required to adjourn “sine die,” or “without a date for resumption,” by the last Friday in May. Adjournment sine die means that there is no date set for the body to meet again, I.e., the business is concluded and will not be resuming. Thus, the legislature must finish all its regular business by that time or go into a special session.

The Governor vetoed a number of budget-related bills on Thursday, May 26, showing his dissatisfaction with House and Senate leadership. On Friday, May 27, the legislature entered its session with the intent of overriding his vetoes and forcing some measures through in an exercise of checks and balances. The legislature may override a veto with a two-thirds vote of both houses; normally, this is difficult to obtain, but bipartisan work in the House and Senate can get it done. Working quickly, the legislature successfully overrode vetoes on a number of key bills:

  • HB 3501, a public safety bill requiring the Department of Public Safety to recognize traffic convictions that occur in a Tribal court of any federally recognized tribe in Oklahoma, and treat them the same way they would in an Oklahoma state or municipal court. Stitt vetoed this bill as part of his ongoing conflict with tribal governments; the legislature overrode this veto.
  • Senate Bill 1695, which requires the governor’s appointed cabinet members and agency directors to fill out financial disclosure forms; Stitt’s reasoning in vetoing this bill was that this subjects appointed leaders to higher scrutiny than others, but it was overridden by an almost unanimous vote both vote houses.
  • Senate Bill 1052, which provides more than $7.8 million in contractual per diem increases at the Lawton Correctional and Rehabilitation Facility and the Davis Correctional Facility; Stitt vetoed this based on concerns about transparency, but it was successful overridden 34-13 in the Senate and 70-15 in the House, in a move that shows a potential move towards recognizing tribal sovereignty.
  • House Bill 4457, which establishes an Oklahoma Route 66 Commission; Stitt’s veto on this funding for the Route 66 Commission was overcome in the House 74-9 and the Senate 41-7.
  • House Bill 2046, which would let certain two-year colleges establish higher education funding districts.

From https://www.kosu.org/politics/2022-05-27/oklahoma-legislature-overrides-several-governor-vetoes-will-return-for-special-session-in-june

While the legislature did not override some of the more contentious vetoes, leadership in both houses issued strong criticism of the Governor. It’s important to note that this is an election year, so what this tension between the legislative and executive branches means for November 2022 is still up in the air.

Special Session

This year, the legislature was already in a special concurrent session as it debated how to spend ARPA funds. The special session was intended to extend into the summer months, past sine die, so that the legislature could consider how to spend the $1.8 billion which must be allocated by 2024 and spent by 2026. https://oklahomawatch.org/2022/05/31/oklahoma-officials-release-requests-for-billions-in-federal-pandemic-relief-funds/

In his press conference on May 26, Governor Stitt called the legislature to a second special session, to begin June 13th, to consider some specific tax elimination plans that he wished to pass. Among these are an elimination of the grocery tax, which has bipartisan support although no bills passed this session, and a reduction of the state income tax, a move which would severely limit state revenues for core services such as healthcare and education. Whether or not the legislature will accomplish these tasks remains to be seen, as this special session’s timing could interfere with ongoing campaigns for incumbents who must now divide their time between crucial canvassing and attendance at the session.