The concurrent legislative session begins Wednesday, allowing the Legislature to return in the interim to enact an ARPA spending plan as agreed to by the Joint Committee on Pandemic Relief Funding, according to a State Legislature news release.
“Ensuring the joint committee’s public-driven process can run its full course is in Oklahoma’s best interest. A concurrent session allows for a comprehensive, strategic plan to be enacted through appropriations after a full vetting of submissions and public discussion of how to best deploy these resources,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City.
Some legislators are concerned by the way Stitt is spending the money.
Gov. Kevin Stitt issued a statement, praising legislators for working into the summer on ARPA spending, but also cautioned how the funds are spent.
“I promised Oklahomans that I would run state government in an efficient and transparent way so I greatly appreciate the Legislature’s commitment to work through the summer to distribute ARPA funds with full transparency,” Stitt said. “I expect comprehensive, strategic ideas that make a generational impact rather than piecemeal projects driven by special interests and lobbyists.”
Democrats in the Legislature issued statements supporting the special session.
“House Democrats have consistently warned against giving the executive branch excessive authority. Today, legislative Republicans listened and are now calling for a special session to reclaim Governor Stitt’s unchecked authority,” said House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman. “Throughout the last month, media reports have shown that the Stitt Administration is not up to the task of ensuring taxpayer money is spent properly. It is apparent that the governor’s own safeguards have not been effective enough to ensure his cabinet members and appointees do their job to protect tax dollars.
“I appreciate Speaker McCall and Senate Pro Tem Treat for acknowledging the shortcomings of the governor and committing to a transparent, open process to disburse these funds.”
The Legislature established the joint committee last year as an intra-branch partnership process with the Governor’s Office to determine how ARPA funds are spent. Public committee hearings are still being held and project proposals are still being submitted.
Approximately $17.8 billion has been requested through 1,400 projects submitted by the public to the committee during the joint committee process, but the state has only $1.8 billion to allocate.
State leaders established several strategic investment priorities after months of public testimony identifying needs ARPA funds could benefit across Oklahoma.
“Oklahoma established a strong process, driven by the public, to place the legislative and executive branches in a partnership to listen to the public’s wishes for ARPA dollars. This action simply keeps that train on track,” said House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka.
The special session will also cover $698 million in Large-scale Economic Activity and Development Act (LEAD Act) allocations to pursue Project Ocean, which state officials described as an economic development project that is considering Oklahoma for a major manufacturing operation.
“We are confident Project Ocean will choose Oklahoma, but should it not, this mechanism allows for the legislative action necessary for the allocated funds to be quickly recaptured,” Hilbert said.
The Fiscal Year 2023 budget agreement reserved $250 million for the Progressing Rural Economic Prosperity Fund (PREP), a Project Ocean-related initiative intended to help retrofit Oklahoma areas, such as industrial parks, to compete for future economic opportunities.
“The details of how to best deploy that $250 million in a way that helps make all of Oklahoma competitive for future economic megaprojects remain under discussion and, once finalized, can be codified in this session,” said Senate Appropriations Vice Chairman Chuck Hall, R-Perry.
The concurrent session can keep going after the regular session adjourns, which must be done by 5 p.m. Friday, May 27.