House Speaker Charles McCall (R-Atoka) speaks to media an hour prior to the final adjournment of the 59th Oklahoma Legislature on Thursday, May 30, 2024. (Tres Savage)

Three weeks ahead of the 2024 primary election, the Oklahoma Legislature crammed its final budget puzzle together over the last two days and completed a quick game of policy chess on top of it, with two long-time players orchestrating their knights and bishops to an agreeable draw and a handful of final accomplishments.

With lawmakers adjourning sine die this afternoon, observers of the process now cast their gaze upon Gov. Kevin Stitt, the building’s exuberant executive pooch who can topple pending policy pieces with the veto pen tied to his tail or irritate his Capitol cohabitants by scooting across the entire board to call — another — special session in the name of income tax cuts.

Gamesmanship metaphors aside, term-limited House Speaker Charles McCall (R-Atoka) and term-limited Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat (R-OKC) adjourned their final regular session Thursday after eight and six years, respectively, leading their chambers.

McCall and Treat have faced tumultuous times, including revenue shortfalls, a teacher walkout, a pandemic, a momentous U.S. Supreme Court decision and tense negotiations that yielded massive investments and reforms in education, new infrastructure spending, law enforcement enhancements and targeted tax cuts.

Several of those achievements unfolded over the last two years — the 59th Oklahoma Legislature — which featured more time in regular and special session than out of it.

With the Fiscal Year 2025 budget negotiated in a more public manner this year than ever before, Treat said he achieved a primary parting goal: empowering thorough and open consideration of major funding decisions to pave transparent new ground for the future.

“We’ve modernized government, we’ve provided real school choice, we’ve ended abortion, except for (when) the life of the mother (is in jeopardy), and we put record investments in public education as well as providing more options,” Treat said. “Eliminating the grocery sales tax, that’s something that when I went to the old-timers dinner for the Senate — where previous senators come — they were like, ‘Hey, we’ve always used that as a campaign piece. No one ever actually thought it would get done.’ We delivered. We showed that it wasn’t just rhetoric. We wanted it to be done. And so, we’ve achieved a lot together.”

McCall called it an “honor” to have served as House speaker since 2017, and he referenced the “really tough” financial decisions that culminated in 2018’s historic tax increase and teacher pay raise.

“The state of Oklahoma’s fiscal situation was terrible. We had a four-year contraction cycle leading up to that term,” McCall said. “From going when the Rainy Day Fund has been below $10 in my service to going to $4.8 billion in reserves, the state’s economy producing twice as much output as it did just six years ago, I’m very thankful to be going out on this type of note.”

Treat, who served as Senate floor leader in 2017 and 2018, echoed McCall’s pleasure with current revenues and savings, although the topic of cutting income tax rates again — as they did in 2021 — created consternation for much of this session.

Still, Treat noted the unusual nature of having a House speaker, Senate pro tem and governor each in power for six straight years.

“It’s one of those things where you’re around each other a lot,” Treat said. “So you get a lot of things accomplished. And also the disagreements get magnified as well. But the accomplishments have been really authentic.”

Asked what he might do next professionally, Treat said he earnestly does not know, although he did announce he would be mowing his lawn this weekend.

Peeling back their political differences in a way Hank Hill could appreciate, McCall also mentioned mowing during his final remarks of the year.

“Getting on a tractor and cutting some grass is therapy for me,” McCall said. “I really enjoy that.”

Legislature overrides 5 Stitt vetoes, two dozen stand

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, three-time Google Career Certification graduate Tayvon Lewis and Grow with Google state program director Emily Gise prepare for a press conference announcing artificial intelligence training opportunities Thursday, May 30, 2024. (Tres Savage)

With far less fanfare than last year’s blitzkrieg of bills crammed down the governor’s gullet and into law despite his objections, the Oklahoma Legislature did exert its supermajority authority on several measures.

On Wednesday and Thursday, lawmakers overrode five vetos and passed into law:

  • SB 102, which modifies the “multiplier” from 2.5 percent to 3 percent for the Oklahoma Police Pension and Retirement System, while raising municipality and employee contributions by 1 percent;
  • HB 2687, which requires CLEET-certified officers hired by the Attorney General’s Office to participate in the Oklahoma Law Enforcement Retirement System starting July 1;
  • HB 1712, which prohibits health insurance companies from denying payment on prescribed durable medical equipment based on a supplier being outside of a network unless an in-network supplier is located within 15 miles of a patient’s home address;
  • HB 1979, which sets conditions on agreements between vision care providers and vision care insurers or prepaid vision plans; and
  • SB 1438, which specifies that heavy equipment rental companies may charge a 1.25 percent recovery fee on rentals. SB 1438 required two votes in the Senate to be overridden.

While the Senate also voted to override the veto on SB 922, the House declined to take up the motion. Meanwhile, two other veto override attempts failed Thursday:

  • SB 1751, which would have required prerequisite training for any person seeking to be the legal guardian of a person with dementia, passed the Senate but failed in the House; and
  • SB 1210, which proposed allowing county assessors to use Google Earth and other technologies to make certain reviews of property, also passed the Senate but failed in the House.

The five successful veto overrides represent just a fraction of the 29 bills Stitt vetoed this session so far.

Beyond that, he has 15 business days to make decisions on measures sent to his desk Thursday, and he can use the pocket veto on bills passed in the final five days of session.

Senate twice denies Susan Bergen appointment to OSU board

From left: Senate Floor Leader Greg McCortney (R-Ada), Sen. Julia Kirt (D-OKC), Senate Minority Leader Kay Floyd (D-OKC) and Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat (R-OKC) speak with a State Senate staff member during a brief recess Thursday, May 30, 2024. (Tres Savage)

While Stitt has proven fond of wielding his constitutional veto authority over the years, the Oklahoma State Senate has flexed its own prescribed checks and balances more often in recent years.

The Senate began its work Wednesday with more than an hour’s worth of votes on confirmation decisions for gubernatorial nominations. Only one nomination failed by vote, although several others were denied an up or down opportunity.

On Wednesday, senators voted 13-32 to reject Stitt’s nomination of Norman resident Susan Bergen to the Board of Regents for the Oklahoma Agriculture & Mechanical Colleges, which governs Oklahoma State University, Langston University, Panhandle State University, Northeastern A&M College and Connors State College. Stitt selected Bergen to replace longtime regent Rick Davis, a Logan County rancher.

A Norman resident and prominent rancher in her own right, Bergen was named Oklahoma’s 2023 Landowner Conservationist of the Year for a decade’s worth of work to employ restorative grazing practices, enhance plant diversity and eliminate pesticides on her nearly 13,000 acres of prairie in south-central Oklahoma. In 2016, she recorded a TV ad and opposed State Question 777, an effort to preempt regulation of agriculture in Oklahoma that nearly 60 percent of voters rejected.

A board member for the conservative think tank Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, Bergen made national headlines in May 2023 when she criticized the University of Oklahoma’s diversity, equity and inclusion practices and said she would stop donating to OU after 35 years.

“They train the teachers for the state of Oklahoma,” Bergen told Fox News. “So we count on them to put out quality teachers. And what they’re doing is sending a lot of woke people that believe somehow white people are bad and wrong.”

In a Wednesday statement, Stitt said the Senate had decided to “make an example” out of Bergen.

“The Senate voted down a female agricultural leader and business owner who dedicates significant amounts of her time and talents to ensuring that school children around the state have access to nutritious meals,” Stitt said. “It seems like a weird person for the Senate make an example out of, but Susan will keep serving her community, and the Senate can feel victorious in their effort of keeping another qualified and willing Oklahoman from serving at the state level.”

By Thursday, however, OCPA lobbying efforts to resurrect Bergen’s confirmation had spurred Sen. Rob Standridge (R-Norman) to make a motion suspending Senate rules for that purpose. Sen. Bill Coleman (R-Ponca City) moved to table Standridge’s motion, and Coleman prevailed.

While Bergen became the only gubernatorial appointee whose nomination was voted down by the Senate, several other nominees were denied hearings by the Legislature’s upper chamber, which is tasked with advising and consenting on such decisions, including:

None of those six appointees even received a hearing in the Senate committee to which they were assigned. Late Wednesday morning after senators had voted through the slate of nominees they were confirming, Stitt emailed Treat and Sen. Kristen Thompson (R-Edmond) about Turner, who is currently the CEO of the Jenks Chamber of Commerce.

“The Senate has abdicated its duties by not even giving Heather Turner a hearing,” Stitt said. “Turner is a pillar in her community. As a business owner and the leader of the Jenks Chamber of Commerce, in one of the fastest growing cities in the State of Oklahoma, she has spent her career developing and uplifting the economy of Jenks as well as managing successful teams to support the visions she is tasked to execute as a leader.”

Stitt said Turner was “perfectly positioned to drive stronger outcomes within” the Department of Commerce, and he noted that the decision not to consider Turner’s nomination marks the second year in a row that the Senate has rejected one of his nominees for economic development positions.

“To not even give her a hearing is a startling emerging trend in the State Senate. (…) You sent a chilling message last year that has made it challenging to recruit top talent for the state due to a political move designed to extinguish a proven leader in economic development,” Stitt wrote to Treat and Thompson. “I must ask: What message is the Senate trying to send to Oklahomans, to prospective leaders for any agency, and most importantly to job creators? Do you believe our state’s economic development efforts won’t be hampered by the Commerce department going 18+ months without permanent leadership in place due to your actions, or lack thereof?”

In his email, Stitt referenced Senate Rule 8-40, which states that “nominations shall be referred for consideration to the standing committee which has in its jurisdiction the entity to which the nomination relates.”

Speaking Thursday during a lunch-hour press availability, Treat referenced the governor’s email and sarcastically called him “a long-time expert on Senate rules.”

“It’s erroneous,” Treat said. “You have to refer. The rule requires us to refer. She was referred to Business and Commerce (Committee). I don’t think this governor’s probably ever seen a Senate rule book. So I found that hilarious to see that in an email.”

Prominent policy bills that passed in the final 48 hours

Members of the Oklahoma House of Representatives clap as the chamber adjourns sine die on Thursday, May 30, 2024. (Bennett Brinkman)

While the Senate chose to leave the Department of Commerce without the certainty of a permanent director, senators did pass bills aimed at modifying operations at the beleaguered agency, which saw a slate of senior officials exit this year after former director Brent Kisling was forced out last year.

HB 3252 transferred from the Department of Commerce to the Oklahoma Center for Advancement of Science and Technology duties related to the Invest in Oklahoma program and venture capital funds.

Separately, SB 1447 — called the Creating Oklahoma’s Modern Plan for Economic Transformation and Effectiveness or “COMPETE” Act — split the Department of Commerce into “two separate and distinct divisions.” As prescribed, those are the Economic Development, Growth, and Expansion (EDGE) Division and the Community Outreach and Revitalization Enterprise (CORE) Division. The measure also changes the title of the agency’s director to “chief executive officer,” and it creates a legislative evaluation committee to which the CEO must present a strategic plan. The committee would be required to evaluate and propose economic development projects provided by the EDGE Division, and it shall review proposed incentive packages.

Asked his thoughts about the Legislature’s acronym-heavy effort to overhaul the Department of Commerce while rejecting Turner, his selection to be the agency’s director or CEO, Stitt seemed stunned.

“It’s unbelievable,” Stitt said after participating in a major initiative announcement on artificial intelligence with Google on Thursday.

When HB 1447 appeared on the House floor two hours later, its passage seemed in peril. In a rare moment of public disagreement among House leaders, Appropriations and Budget Committee Chairman Kevin Wallace (R-Wellston) asked Rules Committee Chairman Mike Osburn (R-Edmond) whether he was aware of HB 1447 having a fiscal impact.

Osburn said he had been told there was not one because it only involved restructuring the agency. Wallace asked if Osburn would be surprised to know the state budget agreement did not include money for what he insisted would be a cost to the Department of Commerce.

When the vote was called on HB 1447, it hung open for a few minutes, four or five votes shy of the 51-member threshold needed for passage.

At that exact moment, McCall was about 17 minutes into what could become his final press conference as speaker of the House. As the enormous screen in his office displayed the vote with more red names than normal — including Wallace’s — the phone behind McCall’s chair suddenly rang.

McCall, whose “Mr. Speaker” moniker glowed green, answered the phone on its third ring and attempted to relay a message in as few words as possible.

“Yes,” McCall said, affirming his position.

Within seconds, multiple names on the board turned green, and the bill passed 52-38.

“The speaker has to vote with the caucus,” McCall said when he returned to answering media questions.

Although McCall emphasized that the House is not empowered with confirmation decisions like the Senate, he acknowledged that the lack of a permanent leaders at the agency “is going to be a problem.”

“We are about to leave the legislative session, and the governor will have to run the state, and so he has got to be in a position to do so. He needs those agency directors in place,” McCall said. “I think effectively the problem with the Senate not taking up nominations is that it sends a message of concern to anybody else that the governor may try to ask to take the job, and I don’t think anybody wants to come in as an agency head if there is strife between the agency and the Legislature. A lot of these people come in from the private sector, and those folks have lots of opportunities and could be doing a lot of other things besides walking into a political fight.”

Other major policy proposals sent to Stitt in the final hours of the 2024 legislative session included:

  • HB 1792, a 152-page bill establishing a uniform matrix and new classifications for how incarceration sentences are served and processed;
  • SB 1424, which exempts poultry producers and local land owners from liability if they are following a state-approved nutrient management plan and also increases fines for noncompliance with the Registered Poultry Feeding Operations Act;
  • HB 1105, which increases the time periods in which someone may file a constitutionality protest and a signature verification challenge regarding an initiative petition from 10 days to 90 days;
  • HB 1425, which directs local school boards to adopt policies for students to leave campus up to three hours each week to receive religious instruction;
  • SB 362, which makes changes to the Reading Sufficiency Act and includes requirements that teachers instruct with science-of-reading-based practices;
  • HB 1449, which is called the “Women’s Bill of Rights” and creates definitions for “male” and “female” based whether a person’s reproductive system produces sperm or eggs;
  • SB 631, which reinstates retirement pay for law enforcement officers who first began participating in the retirement system on or after Nov. 1, 2012;
  • HB 1795, which creates a higher education fee waiver for children of deceased first responders; and
  • SB 1705, which prohibits a “foreign government adversary” from owning land in the state.

Some things failed to happen on final regular session day

While Stitt has plenty of policy proposals to make veto decisions on in the coming days, he will also have a full slate of new state agency rules to review as well.

Although the Legislature started the process of approving and denying hundreds of rules outlining agency policies and procedures, the House ultimately chose not to advance a pair of resolutions beyond a committee.

Asked about the decision Wednesday, McCall said it was “a caucus decision.” The committee chairman who helped craft the stalled resolutions said he was “disappointed.”

“The hard work that we do kind of dissipates when we don’t get to run those resolutions and vote on those,” Kendrix said. “I respect what the caucus decides. I have one vote.”

All rules promulgated by state agencies must be approved by either the Legislature or the governor. To that end, House Administrative Rules Committee members advanced HJR 1059 May 6 and HJR 1061 May 14.

HJR 1059 dealt with all state agency rules except those put forward by the State Department of Education. OSDE’s rules were included in HJR 1061.

Approved by the State Board of Education in February, the plethora of new OSDE rules do everything from tying district accreditation to academics to adding a “foundational values” declaration for the state’s public education system that acknowledges “truth, goodness and beauty” and a “Creator.”

“I don’t think that we’re dealing with something there that’s going to completely unravel public education,” Kendrix said of the proposed new accreditation standards.

The decision about whether or not to approve the rules now heads to Stitt.

“I hope to be able to get some of that information off to the governor to say, ‘Here’s what we thought,'” Kendrix said. “And then he’ll make the decision when he does. I mean, that’s his call at this point since we didn’t deal with it.”

Lastly, one measure revealed late Wednesday would have provided significant new power to the Attorney General’s Office. HB 3972 proposed allowing any person or corporation in Oklahoma to request the attorney general to represent their legal interests during a declared emergency. Some lawmakers and lobbyists said they believed the intent of the bill was to allow Attorney General Gentner Drummond to intervene in and combine the potential litigation interests of publicly traded power companies in his Winter Storm Uri investigation into profits made by natural gas marketers.

“The attorney general is grateful for House passage, and disappointed that the Senate did not have enough time to take up the measure,” said Leslie Berger, Drummond’s press secretary.

(Update: This article was updated at 9:15 p.m. Thursday, May 30, to include additional information.)