FRIX: Legislature reconvenes

The Legislature reconvened this week after nearly a month of recess due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We took up several policy bills and then turned our focus to a number of bills that are necessary to finalize this year’s state budget.

House and Senate leaders on Monday announced a $7.7 billion budget agreement for Fiscal Year 2021 that will hold education funding harmless while limiting most other budget reductions to 4% or less.

Based off of figures given by the governor and the state Board of Equalization, the Legislature has $1.4 billion, or 17%, less to appropriate this year than last. Much of that is because of the business closures and the direct hit to the economy from the shutdown forced by trying to keep the public safe from the spread of COVID-19, combined with the sharp drop in price of oil and gas.

By using several creative and innovative measures, legislative leaders were able to keep the cuts to state agencies, and consequently state services, to 4% or less for most agencies. The measures employed include using some reserve funds, cutting one-time spending and temporarily redirecting non-appropriated money into the budget.

Education was prioritized in this budget. While education will take a 2.5% cut from state appropriations, or $78.2 million less than the $3 billion appropriated for FY20, that amount will be offset by the more than $200 million education will receive from federal stimulus funds. Recent teacher pay raises will not be impacted.

Other agency cuts could potentially be mitigated by the $1.25 billion in federal relief funds Gov. Stitt has received for COVID-19 expenses.

Even with these cuts, the FY21 budget would still be the second largest budget in state history, only behind FY20.

With talk of the budget came talk of the cost-of-living adjustment for state retirees that we passed in the House just before the COVID-19 crisis forced us into recess. That measure is still alive in the Senate, and I am still hopeful it can be passed this year.

As for the policy measures passed this week, one included emergency protection of health care workers from frivolous lawsuits filed over COVID-19 treatment. People would still be able to seek compensation in cases of gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct, but this would protect these workers who have gone above and beyond during this unprecedented crisis.

Another measure will allow the governor’s declared catastrophic health emergency to continue for another 30 days. This gives him broader powers to respond to COVID throughout the state.

Another measure amends the supervisory role of physicians over certified registered nurse anesthetists. Instead of working under the supervision of physicians, these professionals will now work in collaboration with, saving time and money as they provide care for those seeking their services.

Avery Frix serves District 13 of the Oklahoma House of Representatives. He can be reached by phone at (405) 557-7302 or via email at avery.frix@okhouse.gov.

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