he Legislature reconvened this week after a long month off due to COVID-19.

The first bill the House passed will protect our health care workers from frivolous lawsuits filed during this pandemic. Many of these workers have spent long hours putting themselves at personal risk when testing or treating suffering patients or those near death. Yet, already there are lawyers lined up to file suit over treatment and testing. Senate Bill 300 will not prevent lawsuits for intentional or gross negligence or misconduct, and it only applies to COVID-19 and not other health issues. Those with an actual grievance will have recourse, but lawyers who are seeking to in some way benefit from this pandemic will be stopped.

Another bill ends a long-running debate over the oversight of certified registered nurse anesthetists. Senate Bill 801 represents a compromise between these nursing professionals and the physicians with whom they work. Instead of working under the supervision of the physician, the bill specifies they will work in collaboration. Certified registered nurse anesthetists have long contended that they must go through years of schooling and licensing requirements to practice, and having to work under the supervision of physicians costs them additional money and slows their work. This bill presents a good compromise for the continued safety of patients while opening the way for faster and more affordable care.

Also this week, House and Senate leadership announced a $7.7 billion budget agreement for Fiscal Year 2021.

Going off of figures provided by the governor and the state Board of Equalization, the Legislature will have almost $1.4 billion less to appropriate than first certified in February. This initially could have resulted in 17% cuts across the board to each state agency. Budget leaders, however, propose utilizing several creative and innovative measures – including spending portions of the state’s savings, using money in agency revolving funds, utilizing apportionments and issuing transportation bonds, to hold cuts to about 4% for most agencies and about 2.5% for education. With the use of federal money, education actually will see an increase for the year.

I voted for this budget because I firmly believe all core services of government will be protected,

We have taken very creative, conservative and fiscally sound approaches to the budget this year, including the apportionment reforms, which in the long run will better benefit the state’s pension plans. We also were able to protect the Rural Economic Action Plan (REAP) for our rural communities. I’m very proud about that. We have no cuts to our County Infrastructure for Roads and Bridges fund, another big win for rural Oklahoma and particularly Western Oklahoma. The Legislature also intends to authorize the Conservation Commission to work with the Oklahoma Capitol Improvement Authority to issue $17.5 million in high hazard dam bonds with the Legislature providing funding for first-year lease payments. We anticipate this will result in significant federal matching dollars.

COVID-19 was an unforeseen and unprecedented global pandemic crisis. With the number of businesses closed temporarily, and the plummeting price of oil and gas, our economy was thrown into a tailspin. I believe we will recover, and we are certainly not in this alone. Many states are having to take similar if not more drastic measures. Thankfully, Oklahoma lawmakers took several measures over the previous few years to shore up state savings - $1.2 billion overall between the Rainy Day Fund and the Revenue Stabilization Fund. We also worked hard over the past decade to build up our pension plans. Much of our work put us on better financial footing, and we are able to mitigate damage to state services for Oklahomans in need.

I will give more detailed information about the state budget in next week’s column. Until that time, I’m here for you if you need anything. I can be contacted at Mike.Sanders@okhouse.gov or (405) 557-7407.

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