ARPA funds
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt is seeking a second term in the 2022 election cycle. (Michael Duncan)

The Oklahoma Legislature is calling for a concurrent special session beginning today that will extend into the summer and allow lawmakers to have more control of the use of American Rescue Plan Act funding, sending it through a more typical appropriation process.

The special session call also authorizes lawmakers to consider the expenditure of other federal funding, as well as provisions of the LEAD Act passed into law this spring in an effort to recruit a planned Panasonic battery plant to Oklahoma. But the move primarily involves ARPA funding, and it appears intended to limit Gov. Kevin Stitt’s ability to have final say over how to spend $1.87 billion in federal relief money.

Last year, lawmakers created their Joint Committee on Pandemic Relief Funding and established a framework for accepting project applications and evaluating proposals to use the $1.87 billion in ARPA funds directed to state government. Under that agreement, the JCPRF’s working groups vet projects, the joint committee makes recommendations and a steering group would pass the recommendations to Stitt.

“There was an agreement between the governor, the speaker and the pro tem that says we are going to do the working groups, the joint committee and the steering committee, and then he would honor the process,” Senate Appropriations and Budget Chairman Roger Thompson (R-Okemah) said shortly after the announcement. “That has not worked.”

Wednesday’s announcement indicates that tension between lawmakers and Gov. Kevin Stitt has risen to the point that legislative leaders have decided to appropriate funding in an official session, instead of making recommendations on which Stitt would ultimately act. The Legislature’s joint committee has already recommended a handful of ARPA projects for approval, but the Stitt administration has not announced his decision on those early recommendations, which include broadband internet mapping and youth behavioral mental health hospital expansion.

“The main thing is we just want to move something forward. We’ve had some projects that the working groups have moved, and they’ve done excellent work, and they’re just sitting on the (governor’s) desk,” Thompson said. “We’ve got $160 million in projects that have not moved forward, so we’re ready to move some projects forward.”

While Thompson addressed their percolating frustration, House and Senate leaders danced around the details of their reasoning in a press release announcing special session, instead touting additional “public discussion” about the ARPA projects.

“Ensuring the joint committee’s public-driven process can run its full course is in Oklahoma’s best interest,” Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat (R-OKC) said in the release. “A concurrent session allows for a comprehensive, strategic plan to be enacted through appropriations after a full vetting of submissions and public discussion of how to best deploy these resources.”

House Speaker Charles McCall (R-Atoka) also discussed the situation in the release.

“Oklahoma established a strong process, driven by the public, to place the legislative and executive branches in a partnership to listen to the public’s wishes for ARPA dollars,” McCall said. “This action simply keeps that train on track.”

Stitt issued a statement moments after the publication of this article, saying he appreciates the Legislature’s intention to distribute ARPA funds “with full transparency.”

“I promised Oklahomans that I would run state government in an efficient and transparent way so I greatly appreciate the Legislature’s commitment to work through the summer to distribute ARPA funds with full transparency,” Stitt said. “I expect comprehensive, strategic ideas that make a generational impact rather than piecemeal projects driven by special interests and lobbyists.”

Under the appropriation plan for ARPA funds, Stitt would still have the ability to veto entire bills or portions thereof, but lawmakers would have the ability to try to override any vetos.

“The governor will still have input,” Thompson said. “He can sign off on it or veto it and send it back to us, and we can either accept his veto or override his veto on the projects we want to work on.”

States have until December 2024 to encumber their ARPA funds, and the federal government’s deadline to spend the money is December 2026.

The Legislature has the constitutional authority to call itself into special session if two-thirds of lawmakers in both chambers sign onto the call. The press release distributed by House Republicans said that call would be filed later Wednesday.

Oklahoma’s plan for ARPA funds

Senate Appropriations and Budget Chairman Roger Thompson, center right, smiles at House Appropriations and Budget Chairman Kevin Wallace, center left, at the start of the Oklahoma Legislature’s Joint Committee on Pandemic Relief Funding meeting Monday, Dec. 6, 2021. (Tres Savage)

The Joint Committee on Pandemic Relief Funding features four working groups:

  • Economic development and workforce
  • Health and human services
  • Government transformation and collaboration
  • Transportation, infrastructure and rural development.

And it has three stated goals:

  • Stronger economy
  • Enhance state services
  • Infrastructure improvements.

About $17.8 billion has been requested in 1,400 projects submitted by the public to the committee, which has hired consulting firms to help manage the process. Lawmakers have been criticized for keeping the list of proposed projects private, and the nonprofit news organization Oklahoma Watch has sued in pursuit of the list.

Official special session call

Wednesday’s call for the concurrent special session was included in the press release. It reads in full:

58th Oklahoma Legislature (2022)

WHEREAS, pursuant to Section 27A of Article V of the Constitution of the State of Oklahoma, the Legislature may be called into special session by a written call signed by two-thirds of the members of the Senate and by two-thirds of the members of the House of Representatives. When the call is filed with the President Pro Tempore of the Senate and with the Speaker of the House of Representatives, they must convene a special session; and

WHEREAS, the State of Oklahoma has substantial federal funds available for expenditure pursuant to the provisions of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, H.R. 1319, P.L. 117-2 (“ARPA”) and pursuant to the provisions of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, H.R. 3684, P.L. 116-58; and

WHEREAS,to ensure that the proper oversight concerning the expenditure of those funds, to maximize the value of the federal funding for the citizens of the State of Oklahoma, and ensure compliance with 62 O.S., Section 34.501, the Legislature should continue to exercise controls over and involve the public in the decision making process regarding those funds, including, but not limited to the passage of appropriation measures and substantive legislation related to the expenditure of those funds; and

WHEREAS, the Legislature has passed Enrolled House Bill No. 4455 (“LEAD Act”) and the measure has been signed into law, providing a specialized economic development incentive which will require an appropriation to fully implement; and

WHEREAS, to ensure effective utilization of the provisions of the LEAD Act the Oklahoma Legislature may need to enact legislation during the period of time following Sine Die adjournment of the 2nd Regular Session of the 58th Oklahoma Legislature and prior to the convening of the First Regular Session of the 59th Oklahoma Legislature; and

WHEREAS, the State of Oklahoma may also need to address issues of critical importance to statewide economic development.

NOW, THEREFORE, we the undersigned members of the Senate and House of Representatives, pursuant to Section 27A of Article V, of the Constitution of the State of Oklahoma, hereby:

1. Call for the convening of a special session of the Oklahoma Legislature; and

2. Request the President Pro Tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives to issue their joint order convening the special session; and

3. Direct the purpose of the call be limited to the consideration of the following matters:

a. Expenditure of federal funds pursuant to the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021
b. Expenditure of federal funds pursuant to the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act,
c. Matters related to the provisions of the LEAD Act as contained in Enrolled House Bill No. 4455 of the 2nd Session of the 58th Oklahoma Legislature,
d. Matters related to critical statewide economic development; and

Direct that the call and order be spread upon the pages of the journals of the Senate and of the House of Representatives.

(Update: This article was updated at 4:43 p.m. Wednesday, May 18, to include comments from Thompson and include additional information.)