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Oklahoma lawmakers vote against relief package


Oklahoma's five U.S. House members joined all other Republicans early Saturday in voting against the $1.9 trillion spending package that includes $1,400 direct payments for most Americans; expanded and extended unemployment benefits; money for state and local governments and schools; and numerous other measures to strengthen federal aid programs and beef up COVID-19 vaccination efforts.

The bill was approved 219-212 and now goes to the Senate. A minimum wage increase — from $7.25 per hour to $15 per hour — is part of the House bill but will be stripped out because of a determination that the provision violates parliamentary rules governing Senate consideration.

President Joe Biden on Saturday applauded House approval and said "we're one step closer to vaccinating the nation. We're one step closer to putting $1,400 in the pockets of Americans. We are one step closer to extending unemployment benefits for millions of Americans who are shortly going to lose them.

"We are one step closer to helping millions of Americans feed their families and keep a roof over their head. We're one step closer to getting our kids safely back in school. And we're one step closer to getting state and local governments the money they need to prevent massive layoffs for essential workers."

Oklahoma's House members complained that Democrats wrote the bill with no input from Republicans and included an excessive amount of spending.

"What was passed here today was strictly a partisan bill, filled with the wish lists of Democrats, providing a broad range of benefits with no regard for the actual level of need of those on the receiving end of funding," said Rep. Stephanie Bice, R-Oklahoma City.

"Only 9% of the dollars in this bill will actually go toward combating the COVID-19 pandemic. This comes at a time when nearly one-third of the Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) dollars from last year remain unspent and as COVID-19 cases continue a steep decline following the onset of vaccine distribution efforts."

In remarks on the House floor Friday night, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore, said Democrats had "thrown in completely unrelated items that just so happen to be at the top of their progressive wish list."

"This includes irresponsible policies like a federal bailout of certain pension funds, providing bloated contributions to state and local governments and arbitrarily raising the minimum wage, which will cost well more than one million people to lose their jobs. ... Instead of proceeding with this progressive wish list, we need to take real action to open up the economy."

Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Cheyenne, said, “Relief should have been targeted, temporary and tied to COVID-19, but instead of working with Republicans, House Democrats have opted for the 'my way or the highway' approach. There is more than $1 trillion from previous COVID-19 packages that remains unspent in the fight against the virus, and while billions of dollars are going to special interests our research communities — many of whom we've relied on to help combat COVID — are being left to shutter."

In remarks on the House floor, Rep. Kevin Hern, R-Tulsa, reiterated his opposition to extending federal unemployment aid, arguing that the extra money provided an incentive not to work.

"Last year, every single COVID relief package passed with bipartisan support and bipartisan input," Hern said. "That is not happening today because the majority has chosen to abandon their calls for unity, without even making an effort."

Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Westville, characterized the bill as "gross opportunism" and said nearly half of the money would not be spent in the current fiscal year, which ends on Sept. 30.

"That is unacceptable and reckless," Mulliln said. "With $1 trillion from previously enacted relief bills still unspent, we should be focusing on getting that relief to those who need it most and getting our economy fully reopened.”

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican, issued a joint statement with 21 other governors, all but one of them Republican, complaining of the formula used to determine state aid under the legislation. All states will get a baseline amount of $500 million, but the rest will be allotted according to populations of unemployed persons. A chart from Republicans on the House Budget Committee shows Oklahoma will get $345 million less from the new bill than it would have under the previous formula based on share of population.

Stitt said the new formula "punishes states that took a measured approach to the pandemic and entered the crisis with healthy state budgets and strong economies. A state’s ability to keep businesses open and people employed should not be a penalizing factor when distributing funds. If Congress is going to provide aid to states, it should be on an equitable population basis.”

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Chris Casteel

Chris Casteel began working for The Oklahoman's Norman bureau in 1982 while a student at the University of Oklahoma. Casteel covered the police beat, federal courts and the state Legislature in Oklahoma City. From 1990 through 2016, he was the... Read more ›