Gov. Stitt’s office recently told one of my colleagues that the Governor could not call a special session for a single purpose, implying he was powerless to call lawmakers together to address the mounting human and economic damage from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. While he’s made no official pronouncements to that effect, it’s important to set the record straight so Oklahomans and their lawmakers understand our options.
What the Constitution says about special sessions
Under our state Constitution, Oklahoma’s Legislature meets in regular session every year from February into May. It can be called into a special session as well. Here’s the language allowing the Governor to call a special session from Article V, Section 27 of the Constitution:
“The Legislature shall hold regular annual sessions as herein provided, but this shall not prevent the calling of special sessions of the Legislature by the Governor.”
This language clearly places no limits on the purpose of or the justification for the special session. A later section allows the Legislature to call itself into a special session by a two-thirds majority.
What some single-purpose special sessions have accomplished
Special sessions often address emergencies, pressing needs, or issues that are too complex to work out in a regular session. In that context, it isn’t surprising that special sessions have led to some of the state’s most important accomplishments. Without reading each individual call for a special session, it’s clear from the results that many of these sessions were called to accomplish a single purpose. A State Senate history shows that special sessions determined the location for the state capitol in 1910, impeached the Governor in 1923, and passed HB 1017 to fund and improve the state’s education system in 1989-90.
Gov. Fallin called two special sessions in 2017 to address the state’s inadequate funding for services. While the first call listed several specific suggestions, the session was limited to the state’s funding needs. The call for the second session was so purpose specific as to name amounts needed to restore budgets of specific state agencies. These sessions resulted in broad-based revenue increases and tax reform, an accomplishment that hadn’t been possible through several previous regular sessions.
Gov. Stitt himself declared a COVID health emergency in March, and two weeks later called for a special session in April “for the sole purpose of concurring with this declaration of health emergency.” Lawmakers acted quickly to do so.
Why we need a special session now
As the pandemic continues and worsens, calls for a special session are expanding. House Democrats have argued a special session is needed to extend the effective period of SB 661, which allows public agencies to meet virtually during the pandemic. It expired on Nov. 15, leaving many public bodies to risk their own health and the health of those they serve in order to keep doing their jobs. Further, expiration of SB 661 marks a significant and alarming step back from the gains our governments have made in transparency during the pandemic. Transparency is a necessary ingredient for democracy, because it allows citizens to hold their representatives accountable, shifts power to citizens, and protects against corruption.
In addition to the growth in COVID cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, other factors suggest our leaders should seriously consider a special session, including:
- new evidence that state virus prevention measures, which have not yet been implemented in Oklahoma, are effective in lowering cases and hospitalizations,
- a new wave of hardship as federal support for the unemployed ends December 26,
- a growing housing affordability squeeze, particularly for renters, which will soon lead to a new wave of evictions,
- an increasingly bleak outlook for low-income families, particularly families with children, who aren’t getting enough food;
- the need to expand Medicaid immediately to speed the health and economic benefits it brings to our state; and
- more short- and long-term damage to the state’s economy and revenue as federal funding dries up and businesses are forced to close.
Oklahoma hasn’t yet fully committed to fighting the human, social, and economic damage wrought by COVID-19; instead our leadership has largely relied on federal action, pleas, and hope. Time is running out for all three, and it’s nearly three months before the Legislature is scheduled to reconvene. Now is the time for our governor and lawmakers to demonstrate that they are serious about helping us through this most difficult of times. A special session is a big first step in that direction.