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Oklahoma Lawmakers Let Stitt Vetoes Stand on Three Pandemic Relief Bills

Oklahoma lawmakers will let Gov. Kevin Stitt’s vetoes of three pandemic relief bills stand and will wait until February to take care of any funding for approved projects, legislative leaders said Monday.

House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, said any possible veto overrides would have to include inflation relief, including the elimination of the state’s share of grocery sales taxes. The House and Senate have been at odds over the best policies to combat higher inflation. Inflation relief was the subject of a separate special session called by the governor in May. 

“The House stands ready to resume special session if the Senate will pass the House inflation relief bills Oklahomans need,” McCall said in a statement Monday afternoon. “At a minimum, a moratorium on the grocery tax like the one the House has passed repeatedly would provide long overdue relief to Oklahomans fighting historic inflation. 

“The House is open to any options to provide the inflation relief Oklahomans deserve. Absent that action by the Senate, the House does not plan to be back in special session for overrides or any other purpose.” 

Alex Gerszewski, spokesman for Senate Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, said lawmakers will act on outstanding pandemic relief bills in the regular session that starts in February. Treat remains committed to studying the state’s tax policies and tax cuts on a broader basis than just the grocery sales tax, he said. 

The Legislature’s special session for the approval of projects under the federal American Rescue Plan Act will automatically adjourn on Friday based on a previously approved joint House and Senate resolution. 

Stitt last week vetoed three bills that provided federal relief funds for arts nonprofits, Oklahoma Educational Television Authority transmitter upgrades and regional centers for emergency response. The Legislature gave itself until Oct. 14 to come back and override any vetoes.

In veto messages, Stitt said none of those three projects met his goal of using federal relief money to fund “long-term strategic investments that will change the trajectory of our state.”  

In a two-day session at the end of September, lawmakers approved more than $1.6 billion in federal relief funds for broadband, water and mental health projects, as well as scores of other projects that were vetted by lawmakers over the summer. They also approved more than $250 million for rural economic development that came from existing state funds. Another $20 million will go toward emergency drought relief.

The Legislature didn’t act on a $95.2 million bill that would use federal pandemic relief funds to expand childcare services, food programs and several programs for the effects of domestic violence. The Department of Human Services was the pass-through agency for those projects, many of which went to nonprofits. Competing House and Senate bills with those projects did not make it to the floor in the September special session because of a last-minute disagreement between the House and Senate.

Stitt last week signed eight special session bills dealing with pandemic relief funds or rural economic development. He allowed another 21 to become law without his signature. 

Paul Monies has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2017 and covers state agencies and public health. Contact him at (571) 319-3289 or pmonies@oklahomawatch.org. Follow him on Twitter @pmonies.