Kevin Stitt, Oklahoma governor, granted sweeping new powers by legislature

OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma Legislature on Monday granted sweeping new powers to the governor to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

The House and Senate met in special session and approved the resolution under the never-before-used Catastrophic Health Emergency Act, which gives Gov. Kevin Stitt the authority to temporary suspend laws and regulations that interfere with the state’s ability to respond to the pandemic.

It also gives the governor the authority to redirect state employees and other resources, including up to $50 million state funds, from one agency to another, among other things. The powers also authorize the state’s public health authority, in this case the State Department of Health, to take control of any human remains.

Those entering the Capitol on Monday had their temperature checked, and most House and Senate members wore masks and gloves as they filed onto the floor in groups of 10 or less to cast their votes. Some members in the House also voted by proxy, a move authorized under new rules approved last month.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.

The House and Senate also passed and sent to the governor bills to take more than $500 million from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to shore up an estimated $416 million hole in the state budget for the fiscal year ending June 30. Any leftover revenue will remain in a separate fund and will be available to address any potential future revenue failures.

An additional $500 million remains in state savings accounts that could be used to shore up the budget in the next fiscal year and beyond. Oklahoma is also expecting to receive about $1.5 billion from the $2 trillion federal stimulus bill, with about $844 million for the state and the rest earmarked for cities and counties.

Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat said tapping the Rainy Day Fund will allow state agencies to finish the current fiscal year without any budget cuts or employee furloughs.

Stitt, however, said an unspecified technical issue in the legislation caused him to postpone Monday’s meeting of the Board of Equalization, which was expected to declare a revenue failure.

“We have to resolve some additional items before the Board of Equalization can certify the full revenue failure of $416 million,” Stitt said in a statement.

In Guthrie, the City Council voted unanimously to require residents to shelter in place through May 5, except for essential tasks, and also required residents to cover their faces when conducting those essential activities and work.

New guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourages people, especially in areas hit hard by the spread of the coronavirus, to use rudimentary coverings like T-shirts, bandannas and non-medical masks to cover their faces while outdoors.

The number of coronavirus cases in the state surpassed 1,300 on Monday and five more people died of COVID-19, the Oklahoma State Department of Health reported. The state has reported a total of at least 1,327 cases and 51 COVID-19 deaths, and health officials expect that number to continue to rise.

President Donald Trump declared a major disaster in Oklahoma on Sunday, making more federal funding available for recovery efforts.

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