COVID-19: The Legislature should take a break to focus energy on the pandemic

COVID-19 Policy Analysis: As our nation confronts the COVID-19 pandemic, OK Policy will be analyzing state and federal policies that impact our state and its residents during this national health emergency. These posts reflect the most current information available at publication, and we will update or publish follow-ups as new information becomes available.

– – –

The State Legislature made a good first step on Monday to limit access to the Capitol to elected officials, credentialed media, and essential personnel. Our lawmakers should take the next step and suspend the current session. They need to maintain focus only on critical legislation directly pertaining to this health emergency or the budget. This move would be in the best interests of public health.

Social distancing is best strategy for virus containment

Social distancing has been identified as the most effective tool we have to minimize the impact of coronavirus. An easy way to maximize distance is to minimize the number of people in the room. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that meetings of more than 50 people be cancelled or postponed, while the White House has recommended limiting gatherings to 10 people or less. Locally, Oklahoma City, host to the Legislature, announced it would be limiting attendance at public meetings to 50 people.

On Tuesday, media reported that Senators and staff were asked to remain in their offices and await testing following notification that someone in the Senate has tested positive for COVID-19. There are roughly 75 and 150 people in the chambers when the Oklahoma Senate and House of Representatives meet, respectively. Committee meetings may have over 50 people as well, particularly when hearing controversial legislation or when a deadline for action approaches (the next such deadline is only a few weeks away, on April 9). There are several hundred staff for both the Legislature and the executive branch as well as state agency leaders, reporters, and public safety officers. House leadership indicated that the page program, which utilizes high school students, was going to remain active through this week. Many of these groups include members at the greatest risk for COVID-19. More importantly, all will need to be healthy and available to join in the response our state needs.

Democracy demands the Legislature not meet

Responsible Oklahomans are making sacrifices to maintain the recommended social distancing. As a result, few will be willing to risk their health and compromise their convictions to make their views on legislation known. Democracy requires an informed citizenry who can easily and readily engage with their government.

Monday’s Capitol closure and any future limiting of public meetings makes it increasingly difficult for Oklahomans and advocacy groups to have their voices heard to ensure that our government is operating in an open and transparent manner. Lawmakers on Tuesday discussed HB 3888, which would authorize teleconferencing and videoconferencing for meetings of public bodies until March 2021. This will serve as a barrier to engagement for many Oklahomans, especially those who lack internet connections. While we want to ensure that government bodies are able to function during crisis, democracy demands that we maintain full confidence in our government, are able to have a clear sense of their actions, and have opportunities for residents to speak out when they have concerns about their government operations.

In trying times, good leadership makes a big difference

At least 12 state legislatures have suspended or curtailed sessions this month, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Others are likely to follow. Oklahoma’s Legislature has an opportunity to demonstrate an understanding of the uphill battle we face with this virus and to model the leadership we sorely need in our state and beyond.

During these unprecedented times, it’s important that our lawmakers maintain a laser-like focus on only critical legislation directly pertaining to this health emergency or fulfill its constitutionally mandated budget responsibilities.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Paul Shinn

Paul Shinn is a Budget and Tax Senior Policy Analyst with OK Policy. Shinn has held budget and finance positions for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, the Department of Human Services, the cities of Oklahoma City and Del City and several local governments in his native Oregon. He's also taught political science and public administration at the University of Oklahoma, University of Central Oklahoma, and California State University Stanislaus. While with the Government Finance Officers Association, Paul worked on consulting and research projects for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Transportation, and several state agencies and local governments. He also served as policy analyst for CAP Tulsa. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from University of Oklahoma and degrees from the University of Oregon and the University of Maryland College Park. He lives in Oklahoma City with his wife Carmelita.

0 thoughts on “COVID-19: The Legislature should take a break to focus energy on the pandemic

  1. Paul, There may be another bill that should be completed, HB 3350 (retirees cola) could help the economy of the state after the covid-19 situation is finished. The federal government is working on a stimulus program as we speak. Pension funds are a major contributor to local economies. HB 3350 funds come out of the pension funds and will not come from general fund monies. Our state appears to be in for economic stress. HB 3350 passed the house 99 to 0. The bill would help the economy after the damage from covid-19 and would help the distressed retirees who spend their pensions in the towns across our state. I believe this boost to retirees pay would also be a boost to our states recovery.
    May God protect you and yours.
    John A. Soos

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.