major vetoes
The Oklahoma Legislature pushed six bills into law Friday, May 22, 2020, despite the vetoes of Gov. Kevin Stitt. (Tres Savage)

The Oklahoma Legislature reconvened Friday, pushed six bills into law despite Gov. Kevin Stitt’s vetoes and then adjourned again for the end of the 2020 regular session.

In all this year, Stitt vetoed 18 bills and part of a 19th. Legislators overrode 10 of those in total, including the Fiscal Year 2021 budget that Stitt keeps reminding lawmakers that “they own.”

Still, some vetoed bills that could potentially have been overridden remained struck down when the year’s final gavel sounded. Among the vetoed bills that remain dead are measures about a sales tax exemption benefiting OU Medicine, a controversial property tax exemption reform, a funding measure for Medicaid expansion and a package of medical marijuana program reforms that drew dozens of advocates to the Capitol on Friday.

“We sat down with our House counterparts and worked through the list,” Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat (R-OKC) said when asked how the Legislature decided which vetoes to override.

The six measures pushed into law Friday despite Stitt’s objections were:

  • HB 2749 and HB 2750, which work in conjunction to authorize an additional $161 million bond package to fund the state’s matching obligation for endowed chair positions at Oklahoma higher education institutions. The measures also functionally capped the state’s funding of endowed chairs;
  • HB 3819, which makes any contract from a state agency open to inspection by any member of the Oklahoma Legislature. It also bans any agency from prohibiting an employee, contractor or other person to communicate with the Legislature;
  • HB 4018 to create a Rural Broadband Expansion Council to study and map rural broadband access in the state of Oklahoma. The council was set to operate under a series of requirements laid out in the bill, including direction to maintain the Oklahoma Universal Service Fund;
  • SB 1002 was the trailer bill to HB 4018 and increased from 12 to 14 the membership of the Rural Broadband Expansion Council, while specifying qualifications of additional members;
  • HB 4049, which changes the dedication of fees related to online motor vehicle registrations conducted by tag agencies.

House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols (R-OKC) was critical of “whoever wrote” the veto message on HB 3819, which authorizes legislative review of state agency contracts and requires state employees to speak with legislators if requested.

“It’s shocking, the veto on this,” Echols said on the House floor. “Whoever wrote that veto message clearly never even read this bill.”

Echols said a veto of HB 3819 “was not on my radar,” and he said lawmakers review contracts and seek information from state agency employees as part of their jobs.

“If we ask, it’s because a constituent asks and we are trying to get information for our constituency,” Echols said.

The veto overrides of HB 2749 and HB 2750 were praised by the presidents of Oklahoma’s top two universities.

“The action by the Legislature today to create a pathway to fulfill a longstanding promise made by the state to match donations from hundreds of donors who contributed to endowed chairs at universities and colleges across Oklahoma is commendable,” OSU President Burns Hargis said in a statement. “It is fitting the bill passed on Boone Pickens’ birthday. He was one of the most generous people ever to higher ed and a donor to the endowed chair program. We thank the legislative leadership and the bipartisan support of legislators on taking this critical step forward. We are encouraged, and hopeful funds will be available next year to honor the promise made to Boone and so many other donors.”

OU President Joe Harroz also thanked lawmakers for funding professor pay boosts.

“OU is grateful to the state Legislature for recognizing the state’s commitment to authorizing essential endowed chair programs for Oklahoma’s institutions of higher education. The faculty positions supported by this measure are critical to our purpose,” Harroz said in a statement. “This key investment in research and teaching serves our students and acts as an economic engine for the state and society. In a difficult fiscal year, we recognize this was not an easy decision, however, we’re confident that the bills are a wise long-term investment.”

Medicaid funding veto puzzles politicians

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were surprised by Stitt’s veto of SB 1046, which would have raised an estimated $134 million for whichever version of Medicaid expansion ultimately becomes law in Oklahoma. Stitt has filed a federal application to pursue an alternative version of expanded coverage for low-income adults that he calls SoonerCare 2.0.

“That one was shocking,” Echols said after session. “That was the governor’s bill. That’s what the governor asked for in his state of the state (speech). It does make it a little hard when a governor asks for something, you try to move heaven and earth to do it for him and then he vetoes it.”

Treat said senators were also caught off guard that Stitt pulled the plug on the Supplemental Hospital Offset Payment Program (SHOPP) bill.

“It was a very difficult vote. We wished that it would have been signed. But that’s his prerogative,” Treat said, noting that voters will decided on a Medicaid expansion state question June 30. “If (State Question) 802 passes, obviously it will have to have a funding stream. Right now, it will be in the voters’ hands.”

Treat said a SHOPP increase would “obviously” be part of the Legislature’s discussion on how to fund Medicaid expansion if SQ 802 passes.

Senate Minority Leader Kay Floyd (D-OKC) said her caucus was “a little surprised” by some of Stitt’s major vetoes, including SB 1046.

“He has talked about his plan for quite some time, and we look forward to seeing how we are going to fund the expansion,” Floyd said. “We are going to look to the governor for leadership on that. He’s talked about the plan, so we are ready to see the plan.”

Floyd said lawmakers have to find some sort of revenue for Medicaid expansion.

“This has been part of the dialogue in this state for 10 years,” Floyd said.

Treat tried to calm ‘the storm rolling through the Capitol’

Treat said he started his Friday by meeting with Stitt again.

“I didn’t sleep well last night, really with the storm rolling through Oklahoma City, but also just the storm rolling through the Capitol, too,” Treat said. “I’ve told you all before that I like the governor personally. So I woke up with a heavy burden on my heart. I went to the lord in prayer and decided to reach out to [the governor] and have him come to my office and just talk. We went through every bill and why he vetoed it and why I thought we might override some of them. We had a very productive conversation.”

House Speaker Charles McCall (R-Atoka) also touched on his relationship with the governor in a press conference Friday afternoon.

“We’re going to continue to support the governor,” McCall said. “We did not override near as many bills as we could have taken up.”

Marijuana veto stands

HB 3228 was the final measure sent to the governor’s desk last week, and it was one of the final measures the governor vetoed. In his veto message, Stitt noted the bill’s length and said the process of approving it was rushed.

Echols said the House had the votes to override the veto but that the Senate did not.

“We read it. Understood it,” Echols said of HB 3228, which bore name.

Treat called the bill “lengthy” and said senators ended up having questions about parts of the bill affecting municipalities. He also discussed whether the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority’s director actually supported the measure, as some lawmakers were told by their peers.

“I’ve gotten mixed messages on whether or not OMMA really wanted it,” Treat said.

Bill on agenda remains in waste basket

The House featured HB 3824 on its floor agenda for possible override consideration, but no motion was ultimately made. The bill would have exempte the Legislature and state judicial entities from fees and costs for services rendered by appropriated state agencies. It had originally passed the House 89-0 and the Senate 41-3.