For its 2021 session set to start Feb. 1, the Oklahoma Legislature could end up debating additional requirements for citizens to be able to call for and pass state questions.
The Legislature may also consider permanent reforms to the Open Meeting Act and reforms for the education system. All of that, of course, would happen while lawmakers cobble together a shaky state budget and find a way to fund Medicaid expansion, a roughly $160 million mandate from voters who passed State Question 802.
Legislative caucus leaders detailed all of that and more during this morning’s public affairs forum hosted virtually by the State Chamber of Oklahoma and moderated by chamber President and CEO Chad Warmington. The annual legislative forum poses questions of Senate and House leaders ahead of the legislative session.
“I think the issue is that the state’s governing document is the constitution, and should it be littered with what arguably could be statutory issues?” Warmington posited during an exchange with Senate Minority Leader Kay Floyd (D-OKC). “We don’t want to limit the people’s access, but I also think that we need to make sure we are thinking through the process.”
Floyd replied by offering a statistic: Over the past 20 years, 102 state questions have been on the ballot. Of those, she said 55 percent were put there by the Legislature.
“It’s much less than what the Legislature itself does,” she said. “So why would we want to make it more difficult for the people to alter their constitution?”
“It’s way too easy. I feel like we want the people of Oklahoma to have that direct mechanism, but it almost feels like and appears that people who are not Oklahomans are trying to push agendas on the people of Oklahoma,” McCall said. “The threshold currently is not ideal. It does not recognize geography (…). I think the House majority, they prefer a model that is kind of based upon a balance of signatures coming from all congressional districts in the state of Oklahoma.”
House Minority Leader Emily Virgin (D-Norman) said that if Republican legislative leaders are displeased by the passage of criminal justice reform, medical marijuana and Medicaid expansion state questions during recent campaign cycles, it means lawmakers are out of touch with the public.
“I think we have to look at why we’ve seen such an uptick on initiative petitions and changes to the State Constitution, and I think it’s because the Legislature has failed to act on a number of important issues,” Virgin said. “The Legislature punted on those issues for so long that the voters and outside groups took measures into their own hands.”
She said proposing a geographical requirement for signature gathering means “campaign professionals would be really excited” because grassroots groups of citizens would have a harder time pursuing initiative petitions without professional political operations.
“That would make it where professionals would be the only ones who would be able to accomplish that,” Virgin said. “To me, a vote is a vote. A signature is a signature. They’re all Oklahoma voters. I frankly don’t really care where they come from. It’s going to be on the ballot, and a vote is a vote.”
Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat (R-OKC) said he wants to have a conversation about the state’s voluminous constitution, with a caveat.
“I don’t want to take away the people’s ability to amend their Constitution. That’s a right that we hold dear. Looking at do we have to have geographic representation, do we have to have a higher threshold if it is constitutional vs. statutory? I’m open to those discussions, but we should never thwart the voice of the people, and if we do we will be at our own peril,” Treat said. “But our constitution is almost laughable when you put it up to other documents around the world.”
Treat noted the length of the Oklahoma Constitution, which was crafted more than 113 years ago by a populace that did not trust big government or big business.
“When Teddy Roosevelt signed our constitution, he said it was not fit for publication when we became a state,” Treat said. “I think what held true in 1907 holds true in 2020. It’s only gotten worse.”
Treat also cautioned people not to view the “framers” of the Oklahoma Constitution as infallible out of a sense of folklore.
“A lot of times when people talk about the framers, we have these visions of Philadelphia and thoughtful, long-lasting tradition,” Treat said. “When you look at the framers of Oklahoma’s constitution, there were undoubtedly some good individuals involved in that. But there were also some people who were overtly racist, people who were not people that we would hold up as models of good citizens today. We are looking through a 2020 lens on that, obviously. But they really made a convoluted constitution.”
Chief executive obfuscator?
The Oklahoma Constitution also became a point of discussion during Wednesday’s forum when legislative leaders were asked to describe how their relationship with Gov. Kevin Stitt had changed between the 2019 session and the 2020 session.
After Treat joked that he did not know to what Warmington was referring, he panned an analogy comparing the governor to a CEO and the Legislature to a board of directors.
“I think it’s important that we undergird the co-equalness of the three branches of government,” Treat said. “They’re all equally important, and they’ve got to be respected in order for us to work well together.”
In 2020, Treat infamously aired his grievances with Stitt — mostly in private — about how the legislative and executive branches each have specific powers and responsibilities. Similarly, McCall and his budget chairman grew frustrated with the governor and his staff.
“Last year because of the pandemic, there was a lot of diminished communication,” McCall said Wednesday. “Unforeseen events sometimes cause disruption of communication.”
Virgin agreed, although she admitted that she does not expect Stitt to brief her as House minority leader on all developments.
“But some of his announcements and some of his plans have caught us by surprise and caused pushback when, with communication, we could have all been on the same page and been working together,” she said.
She noted the October announcement that the state public health laboratory would be moving to Stillwater.
“When you make a decision like that and don’t involve those key stakeholders, people in business understand that there is going to be pushback,” Virgin said. “I hope that improves.”
‘You still have to be accessible’
When Warmington asked the lawmakers what pandemic-related adjustments they might like to see continue in state government, both Republicans and Democrats said they believed the temporary changes to allow virtual meetings under the Open Meeting Act resulted in some benefits for the public.
Treat said he was supportive “to the extent we can do it where we don’t hide from the public and you still have to be accessible and still have to be able to talk to people face-to-face from time to time.”
McCall said digital meetings highlighted the ongoing challenges of rural broadband internet access.
“It’s not easy for everybody in the state of Oklahoma to jump on a virtual meeting,” he said.
McCall said the state’s new broadband council has been formulating recommendations and that he expects “about six to eight pieces of legislation coming out of that effort.”
Virgin and Floyd said the pandemic has shown how Oklahomans need a well-funded government that can adapt and provide services effectively, especially in times of crisis.
“I think that it has shown us that cutting government and cutting core services does not serve our citizens well, especially in a crisis,” Virgin said.
She and Floyd both pointed to the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission, which struggled for months with a backlog of unemployment claims.
“What a lot of people didn’t realize was they were working with a software system that was 40 years old,” Floyd said.
She also said state government needs to learn from the private sector.
“I have to really hand it to business,” Floyd said. “They were able to pivot and adapt much faster than we were and I think we could really learn some lessons from them.”
Capitol COVID protocols still being developed
Legislative leaders noted that they are still working to finalize safety protocols for the 2021 session owing to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s an ongoing discussion in the Senate, and it’s an important one,” Treat said. “I want it to be as open as we can be. I don’t want there to be no access like we had to do for a little while last session.”
Treat said his three priorities are: protecting the public, protecting staff members and protecting fellow lawmakers.
Virgin said the safety issue applies outside the building as well.
“We are bringing 149 legislators from across the state to one location and then sending them home on Thursday each week,” Virgin said. “My fear is that if we don’t control things well at the Capitol, we could cause more community spread in our legislative districts.
“I hope that we have an emphasis on mask wearing, as that’s one of the most effective things we can do.”