Oklahoma Legislature approves emergency declaration

Today, Oklahoma’s Legislature gave Governor Kevin Stitt sweeping power to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a special legislative session, legislators approved Stitt’s declaration of a health emergency in Oklahoma, which grants the governor additional powers under the Catastrophic Health Emergency Powers Act.

This is the first time an Oklahoma governor has invoked the act passed in 2003.

Oklahoma’s Catastrophic Health Emergency Powers Act is based on model legislation crafted after the 9/11 terrorist attacks that was intended to allow states to respond to acts of bioterrorism and naturally occurring epidemics.

In Oklahoma, the health emergency gives Stitt and Commissioner of Health Gary Cox broad powers to help the state respond to COVID-19.

Under the declaration, Stitt will be able to waive statutory and regulatory requirements and redirect state agency or state employee efforts to responding to the COVID-19 crisis. Stitt also will be able to activate the Oklahoma National Guard and transfer up to $50 million in state funds to respond to the crisis.

House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, acknowledged that approving the declaration gives Stitt an incredible amount of power. Legislators are putting their faith in Stitt to do what’s best for the state, he said.

“The powers that we’re giving the governor are very broad,” Echols said. “This is the equivalent of the Oklahoma Wartime Powers Act.”

In response to a question, Echols outlined the checks the Legislature will have over the governor’s power.

The legislation passed Monday requires Stitt to give Republican leaders of the House and Senate advance notice of any state statutes or regulations he suspends in order to respond to the crisis. Legislative leaders and Stitt have both vowed to make that information public.

“We want to be transparent so we will let you know, we will let the media know if any rules are suspended,” Stitt told reporters last week.

The emergency declaration lasts for 30 days. The Legislature also will be able to reconvene the special session at any time to revoke the health emergency declaration should Stitt abuse his powers, Echols said.

Stitt said he asked for the emergency declaration in order to accomplish the following:

• Better coordinate a state strategy for responding to COVID-19 in terms of increasing hospital capacity and erecting “surge” hospitals

• Relax some occupational licensing regulations to get more health care professionals on the front lines of the crisis

• Access some private medical information in order to inform first responders if they are about to come in contact with someone who may have COVID-19, which would allow them to don appropriate protective gear before such encounters.

Only two legislators, one in the Senate and one in the House, voted against the health emergency.

Considering the COVID-19 pandemic will stretch beyond the next 30 days, Echols said it is likely the Legislature may be asked to approve a second Catastrophic Health Emergency declaration after the first expires.

Returning to the state Capitol after a coronavirus-related hiatus, legislators took safety precautions to limit their interactions. Many legislators wore masks and legislators went to their respective chambers to vote in small groups in order to abide by guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention limiting groups to 10 or fewer people.

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