OKLAHOMA CITY -- The Legislature on Tuesday decided to extend the governor's unprecedented powers for another 30 days, allowing him to adjust and quickly respond to the state's COVID-19 pandemic.
But a growing number of lawmakers from both parties indicated skepticism is spreading. More lawmakers question why Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt continues to need the superpowers that allow him to suspend any laws or rules with the flick of his pen.
They complained about a lack of accountability and transparency on policy and spending decisions from the Governor's Office since they last approved expanding his power last month.
"I think a lot us have found ourselves to be short on details and answers from the Governor's Office while being long on trust," said state Rep. Forrest Bennett, D-Oklahoma City.
While Stitt's decision to reopen the state's shuttered economy indicates his administration believes the health emergency is largely past, the governor still pressed lawmakers to extend his Catastrophic Health Emergency Powers Act another month, he said.
Bennett, who voted against the extension, said he wonders if an emergency is still ongoing or not.
"I'm asking this question on behalf of a lot of confused constituents," he said. "I don't know what exactly we're doing."
Supporters, though, said the move was necessary to help the state swiftly navigate a "new normal" during the pandemic. It also will preserve several temporary changes Stitt has implemented designed to bolster the state's health care response as well as the unemployment claims process.
"Nobody in here knows what's coming as we move to reopen this economy, and I believe what protects citizens is to continue giving these powers," said state Rep. Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City.
Echols, the House majority floor leader, said lawmakers are trusting the governor to use his authority wisely.
The state's emergency powers act has a fundamental flaw akin to eating at a restaurant buffet -- it's all or nothing, he said. Lawmakers are looking at changing the statute to make it more manageable.
"I think everybody agrees it has to be a menu," Echols said. "I'll give you these things or these things. What we want to do is change the statute so it's more of a menu."
Thus far, he said Stitt has used the authority to make wise policy decisions.
Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, said extending the authority means officials can continue with several of Stitt's COVID-19 policy changes. They'll still be able to protect first responders by notifying them of potential exposure risks before going to homes with known COVID-19 cases. It also will allow the state to ramp up contact tracing to try to slow the spread of the deadly virus.
The extension will allow the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission to continue to waive the required one-week waiting period for unemployment filings, Treat said. Nurses licensed out of state also will be able to maintain their practice in Oklahoma.
But Treat said lawmakers want more transparency on Stitt's use of executive orders to spend or move money around state government.
He said he's seen evidence that the Department of Commerce used some of the money allocated to the governor's business closing fund, which is supposed to help attract or retain high-impact businesses to Oklahoma. That money was used for a manufacturing reboot for existing businesses. He said the new extension will require Stitt to specify which powers he is exercising.
"We do require a delineation so that we can better trace where these dollars are spent," Treat said.
Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.