Legislature should focus on budget and pandemic (Capitol Update)

There is little to nothing to report this week on legislative activity. Appropriations and budget leaders are still putting together a FY 2021 budget for consideration when the legislature is able to return for a vote — or, in the case of the House, to vote by proxy. It’s difficult to imagine, for the moment, how they can craft a budget without sound numbers on how much money is available to appropriate. No doubt the amount of money certified for appropriation in February is off the table since the coronavirus outbreak.

While leaders are no doubt busy setting priorities, the longer they wait for final decisions, perhaps the clearer the picture will be on the pandemic’s true damage to the economy. There is no alternative constitutional method for certifying projected funding. Legislators will simply have to make their own projections — with the help of the tax commission and economic modeling — and agree on a total budget. They will also have to agree on how much of the Rainy Day Fund to make available for appropriation. For the members who have been around for a while, this is surely like deja vu all over again, except worse.

As for policy matters, the longer the recess goes, the less likelihood there is of passing significant legislation. There just simply is not the ability for discussion and debate, the give and take that is necessary to produce good legislative outcomes. There is also practically no ability for interested citizens outside the building to affect legislation. Truthfully, it would be rather undemocratic to ram through unnecessary, far-reaching legislation in a closed building with little access of citizens to their elected representatives. 

Since Oklahoma City has severely limited activity within its boundaries until April 16, it’s hard to imagine the legislature will be back in session before then. Depending on where and when the COVID-19 surge occurs, it could be longer. Legislators can certainly be forgiven if not a lot happens this session. Hopefully, they will do whatever needs to be done on the health care front to deal with the crisis, pass a budget to keep the ship of state afloat, and avoid any temptation to pass controversial measures under cover of the crisis. This state has need for good policy in many areas, and it’s a shame to lose a year of potential. But I think most citizens will likely be happy to just be alive to face those important issues when this crisis is over.


Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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