With less than a month left to go in the legislative session, House and Senate leaders are inching closer to a budget agreement and Gov. Kevin Stitt has signed hundreds of bills into law.

But disagreements over potential income tax cuts remain a sticking point among the Republicans in charge at the Capitol.

In a surprising move, Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat on Tuesday removed Senate Appropriations Chairman Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, and replaced him with Appropriations Vice Chairman Chuck Hall, R-Perry. Oklahoma City Sen. Paul Rosino will be the new vice chairman of that powerful committee at a key time for budget negotiations. Thompson had been the chairman since 2019.

“Senator Thompson has done a tremendous job as appropriations chairman and has a firm handle on the state budget,” Treat said in a news release Tuesday afternoon. “He has been an invaluable appropriations chairman, and I have the highest regard for Sen. Thompson. However, as we continue our transition into our new transparency efforts, it is vital to move forward accordingly.”

After last week’s final major legislative deadline, lawmakers are considering amended bills that have returned to their chamber for final approval before either heading to a conference committee or to the governor. Among them are Senate Bill 362, which makes changes to the state’s reading requirements. The House is considering amendments to House Bill 3278, which changes the requirements for high school graduation.

Meanwhile, a bill to allow schools to employ or have volunteer chaplains is headed back to the Senate after House members deleted language from a previously dormant bill, a legislative tactic commonly called shucking. SB 36 originally dealt with open records.

Stitt has signed more than 235 bills into law. On Tuesday, he signed a state immigration enforcement bill that was modeled after a similar bill in Texas. The House suspended its normal rules to consider Speaker Charles McCall’s HB 4156 for the first time just two weeks ago without going through committee.

The bill sat on Stitt’s desk after passing the House and Senate by veto-proof margins. Among the groups opposed to the bill were several religious leaders, including Oklahoma City Archbishop Paul Coakley, who called the bill “deeply flawed.” Several Oklahoma City schools had walkouts last week as some students protested the bill.

In approving HB 4156, Stitt also issued a rare signing statement, his first this year, that said law enforcement should not use the new enforcement powers to target any particular racial groups.

“Law enforcement can stop a person in public to investigate further only if reasonable suspicion of criminal activity exists,” the signing statement said. “Moreover, law enforcement are prohibited from profiling based on race. I am hopeful these facts help curb fears about this bill’s implications.”

Stitt earlier approved new medical marijuana packaging requirements, a change to how the three-member Corporation Commission discusses business and a bill allowing the Oklahoma Tax Commission to share additional information with the attorney general’s office, district attorneys and the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority to combat money laundering related to illicit marijuana.

Stitt last week signed SB 1854, which would outlaw unauthorized camping on state-owned land and target homeless encampments.

Vetoed bills

The governor’s veto pen has also been active this year. Stitt has vetoed more than 20 bills. Lawmakers so far have managed to override just one veto, SB 60, back in the first week of the session. That bill extended the Board of Chiropractic Examiners until July 1, 2026. It was a holdover veto from the 2023 session and was among a clutch of Senate bills vetoed by Stitt as the House and Senate argued over private school tax credits last year.

The Senate last week voted to override SB 1470, the Oklahoma Survivors’ Act, which would allow leniency for criminal defendants if they can show abuse contributed to their offense. But the House has yet to schedule an override vote. In his veto message, Stitt said it expanded mitigating circumstances in sentencing beyond domestic violence. The bill was opposed by the Oklahoma District Attorneys Association.

Among other criminal justice bills sent to the governor was SB 1702, which would shield businesses and individuals involved in the death penalty from public view. State law already shields most records related to capital punishment.

SB 1450 would increase the penalties for retail crime and organized retail crime. The House last week amended the bill and sent it back to the Senate. The changes were recommended by the Oklahoma Organized Retail Crime Task Force.

Several bills making changes to the state’s Energy Discrimination Elimination Act stalled before last week’s deadline. They include SB 1536, which would have the attorney general mediate disputes between the state treasurer and pension plan administrators over exemptions taken under the law. SB 1510 originally exempted cities and counties from the law, but amendments in the House expanded the law to agriculture, timber and mining companies. It failed in a House floor vote on April 25.

Budget talks ongoing

Transparency has been the operative word as lawmakers formulate this year’s budget. Under Treat, R-Oklahoma City, the senate unveiled its new budgeting process. That appeared to drag in March after the Senate approved a budget resolution to kick off negotiations with the House. But then House budget writers unveiled an interactive budget transparency portal that shows just where the disagreements over the budget still remain.

House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, was optimistic as he briefed reporters on Monday about budget talks and the state’s response to the deadly outbreak of tornadoes in southern Oklahoma over the weekend.

Aside from the debate over cutting personal income taxes, differences remain between the House and Senate on the amount of funding for both common education and higher education. They remain at odds over how to deal with a backlog of deferred maintenance projects. The chambers also differ on how to fund their own operations and that of the Legislative Services Bureau.

“I still think we’re pretty far apart on the education things,” Treat told reporters on Thursday.

Despite the differences between Republicans on tax cuts, Stitt on Tuesday signed SB 2035, the Mason Treat Act. The bill was a top priority of Treat after his son, Mason, got in a serious car accident in January after being stopped by a sheriff’s deputy. It changes the state’s temporary car tag laws to minimize traffic stops.

Paul Monies has been a reporter with Epic Text Books since 2017 and covers state agencies and public health. Contact him at (571) 319-3289 or pmonies@epictextbooks.com. Follow him on Twitter @pmonies. 

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