Monday, Feb. 1 marked the first day of the 2021 legislative session, and the spotlight of the first day is always the governor’s State of the State address. It’s his opportunity to look at the challenges and accomplishments of the previous year and to share his policy and budget priorities for the new year. I was excited to hear Governor Stitt’s remarks, and despite the challenges still ahead, I am optimistic about our ability to continue our rebound and stay on the right trajectory.
One of the things the governor talked about was Oklahoma’s effort to reopen safely and responsibly late last spring. He noted the state’s June unemployment was the fifth lowest in the country. It was 40 percent lower than the national average and almost 60 percent lower than New York. Keeping businesses open and people working is the key to helping our state return to that “normal” everyone wants to see.
He pointed out Oklahoma had completed more than three million tests to date, and that Oklahoma is now seventh in the nation in vaccines administered per capita. While many Oklahomans are still waiting to get their shots, more doses are being shipped, and the governor said more than 356,000 Oklahomans have gotten the vaccine. As of this past Thursday, that number had risen to 375,000.
I do want to remind everyone, if you haven’t registered on the Health Department’s website, go to www.vaccinate.oklahoma.gov to sign up. Once you have been notified that you have successfully registered and are in one of the categories currently eligible for the vaccine, you’ll need to keep checking the link they send you to make an appointment. Those who do not have internet access or are having difficulty registering can call the state’s health and human services helpline, 211, for assistance.
The governor repeated his call for more schools to return to in person classes, and that’s something I agree with as well. While some students have adapted to distance learning, many continue to struggle.
With the State of the State speech delivered, our focus shifted to committee action. Senators filed 1,035 bills and 26 joint resolutions ahead of the session, so I was pleased to see committees quickly tackling those measures during the first week. I’m especially glad to report we fast-tracked legislation to reinstate open meeting exemptions to enable public bodies to meet virtually during the coronavirus pandemic. We’d originally approved those exemptions at the start of the pandemic last March, but they expired in November. Senate Bill 1031 will allow those virtual meetings to resume, and these exemptions will remain effective until Feb. 15, 2022, or until 30 days after the expiration or termination of the state of emergency declared by the governor, whichever date occurs first. The bill also contains provisions to ensure public access to those virtual meetings.
Work continues on the state budget as well. As vice chair of appropriations, I’ve been working closely with our chair, Senator Roger Thompson, as our subcommittees have held numerous budget hearings in recent weeks to help us as we prioritize resources to fund our core government services and functions. I’m grateful to Senator Thompson for his mentorship and for the dedication of our vice chairs and members. I’ll keep you updated as that work continues.
Please feel free to contact my Capitol office with any questions or concerns you may have about legislation or other issues impacting our state at 405.521.5628 or at Chuck.Hall@oksenate.gov.