Oklahoma lawmakers push to curb Gov. Kevin Stitt’s power amid coronavirus pandemic
Less than a year after state lawmakers temporarily granted Gov. Kevin Stitt unprecedented emergency powers, legislators are looking to curb the governor’s authority in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Several Republican legislators have introduced bills aimed at telling Oklahoma’s governor what he can, and more specifically, what he cannot do in emergency situations.
They say the bills are intended to strengthen the state’s system of political checks and balances and prevent the governor from violating Oklahomans’ rights, regardless of the circumstances.
This trend is not unique to Oklahoma. Lawmakers in at least six states are pushing legislation to strip governors of some of their emergency powers.
But Stitt has taken a more reserved approach to the pandemic than most governors. Some of the state’s health care professionals have criticized Stitt for not taking stronger action to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
“There’s never been a COVID pandemic before, but we’ve got 50 laboratories of democracy right now,” said Jason Reese, Stitt’s general counsel. “I would say that the governor has definitely shown restraint compared to other states.”
Stitt is one of just a few governors that refused to impose a statewide mask mandate.
He also frequently touts Oklahoma as one of the first states to shed its COVID-related business restrictions and fully reopen its economy.
“I am thankful that our governor was one of the first to open up the state, but our current governor isn’t always going to be the governor,” said Sen. Nathan Dahm.
The Republican from Broken Arrow introduced legislation to prevent the governor from closing any businesses during a pandemic or under a declared state of emergency without “scientific evidence” that a particular business contributes to disease spread.
Sometimes temporary restrictions are necessary and you want to give the governor the benefit of the doubt, especially if the threat is as murky as things were at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.
But governments are instituted to secure peoples’ rights, not infringe upon them, Dahm said.
Other proposed legislation
Rep. Jay Steagall, R-Yukon, filed legislation to limit gubernatorial emergency declarations to just 30 days without legislative approval.
Stitt first declared a state of emergency under the pandemic in March 2020 after the eighth case of COVID-19 was discovered in the state. Emergency orders typically last for 30 days, but the governor has extended the emergency throughout the pandemic.
It’s nearly unheard of for a governor to have an emergency declaration in place for a year or longer.
The vast majority of the time an emergency declaration has been in effect, the Oklahoma Legislature has been out of session and oftentimes federal assistance is contingent upon a state of emergency, said Reese, Stitt's attorney.
He also stressed the importance, especially at the start of the pandemic, for Stitt to act quickly.
“It was such a fast-moving situation,” Reese said. “How many things in the past year have changed? At first it was, ‘don't get masks.’ Later, it was, ‘go get masks.’ So we need to be nimble, we need to be flexible.”
Stitt's emergency order authorized state agencies to make necessary purchases, quickly hire additional staff to respond to the crisis and required employees and visitors in state buildings to wear masks. The order also cut red tape for medical professionals who wanted to return to the workforce and required Oklahoma hospitals and testing labs to report daily COVID-19 data to the state.
A U.S. Air Force veteran with 23 years of military experience, Steagall said he’s well aware executive action can be necessary in a crisis.
But nearly a year into the pandemic, Steagall said it makes sense for the Legislature to re-evaluate Oklahoma's COVID-19 response.
“We don't have time to get a general consensus on the best approach to address a certain crisis,” he said. “However, it is on us to plan and prepare for those to the best of our abilities.”
Steagall also proposed legislation to undo current law that allows the governor, in the event of an emergency, to restrict or prohibit certain gatherings, the sale or purchase of alcohol and “other activities as the Governor reasonably believes should be prohibited to help preserve and maintain life, health, property or the public peace.”
Early on in the pandemic, Stitt prohibited gatherings of 10 or more people. Some limits on public and social gatherings are still in effect. Stitt also temporarily imposed an 11 p.m. curfew for bars and restaurants.
Equating that provision of law to a blank check, Steagall said House Bill 2336 simply strikes a clause that is “arguably unconstitutional,” and brings powers reserved for the Legislature back to state lawmakers.
"The executive, even though they play a vital role in our system of government, does not have the authority to create legislation on their own,” he said. “So they can't come up with new rules and say ‘this is a new set of rules we’re all going to play by.’ That is a function of the Legislature.”
Rep. Marcus McEntire, R-Duncan, said the Legislature needs to slow down efforts to curb the governor’s power.
McEntire defended Stitt’s actions during the pandemic, saying the governor’s use of power was appropriate under extenuating circumstances.
“The Legislature attempting to tie a future (governor), or even this governor’s hands, I think, is a little knee-jerk and maybe a tad overdone,” he said. “We need to stop, let some time pass, reflect and then come up with policy on any limits of power.”
Oklahoma's most powerful governor
For two months last year, Stitt was the most powerful governor in Oklahoma's history.
The Oklahoma Legislature twice approved Stitt's request to unlock sweeping emergency powers under the Catastrophic Health Emergency Powers Act.
Stitt is the only Oklahoma governor to have invoked the act since it was passed in 2003, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Even before that, Stitt had more power than previous governors when the Legislature gave him the authority to hire and fire the directors of some of the state's largest agencies.
That wasn't about giving the governor more power, rather that legislation was designed to take power from unelected boards and return it to the citizens of Oklahoma through the duly elected governor, said House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City.
"While I do think Kevin Stitt is the most powerful executive we've had in the history of the state, I think he's doing a great job with the authority he's been given," he said. "We're still trying to strike that balance as to what that authority should be and where it should reach."
It's important to differentiate Stitt from the office of the governor, because Stitt will be in office for only a specified period of time, Echols said.
"Just because I think Gov. Stitt is doing a great job, that doesn't mean I want to give the office of the governor additional powers," he said. "You have to be able to separate the office from the individual."
Legislative leaders are constantly monitoring the separation of powers in Oklahoma's state government, said Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City.
Last year, Treat and House Speaker Charles McCall sued Stitt over tribal gaming compacts the governor had inked with two Oklahoma tribes, saying the governor exceeded his authority. The legislative leaders, who won their case, alleged Stitt had overstepped his power and infringed on the Legislature’s authority.
But the pandemic is still serious and Stitt needs to be able to respond, Treat said.
“We don’t like governing through executive orders on the national side or the state side, but there are times that it’s necessary to allow the governor to have some flexibility," he said.
Reporter Carmen Forman covers state government and politics for The Oklahoman. Send story tips to email@example.com or connect on Twitter with @CarmenMForman. Support her work, and the work of other Oklahoman journalists, by purchasing a print or digital subscription today at oklahoman.com/subscribe.