By SEAN MURPHY The Associated Press
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The Republican-led Oklahoma House on Tuesday rejected an attempt by Democrats to require members to wear masks on the House floor and take other steps to minimize the spread of the coronavirus.
The House and Senate each convened for a constitutionally mandated organizational day to formally elect its leaders and seat its elected members. They also voted to adopt rules ahead of the new legislative session that begins Feb. 1.
During discussion of the new House rules, Democratic leader Rep. Emily Virgin proposed several amendments, including a requirement that members wear masks on the floor of the House and to allow remote participation in meetings and floor votes. But all of those amendments were rejected on mostly party-line votes.
Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt has signed an executive order requiring state employees and visitors to state buildings to wear masks and maintain social distance, but the rule technically doesn’t apply to members of the House and Senate, and many Republican legislators opted not to wear masks or socially distance on Tuesday.
“Why are we acting like an executive order of the governor … doesn’t apply to us?” Virgin asked. “It applies to visitors. It applies to staff. But it doesn’t apply to legislators. It’s hypocrisy at it’s finest.
“It’s not about politics. It’s about the health and safety of Oklahomans.”
House floor leader Rep. Jon Echols, who moved to table all of the Democrats’ proposed amendments, did not immediately return a telephone message seeking comment.
The new House rules were also changed this year to allow religious headwear to be worn on the floor of the House, a change that was made to accommodate first-term Rep. Mauree Turner, a Democrat from Oklahoma City who is the first Muslim person ever elected to the Oklahoma Legislature.
Turner, who also identifies as non-binary, attempted to amend the rules to add gender-neutral pronouns, but that proposal also was rejected.
“We never thought this fight was going to be easy,” Turner said in a statement after the vote. “At the same time, having a member of this body stand up and fight for communities that have been ignored is an important step.”
Republican House Speaker Charles McCall of Atoka and Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat of Oklahoma City were each reelected to their leadership posts.
Among the top issues the Legislature will face this year is how to fund a voter-approved expansion of Medicaid health insurance to the working poor that is scheduled to take effect July 1. The expansion means an additional 215,000 low-income residents will have access to health care, but even with a 9-to-1 federal match, the state’s share is projected to be at least $164 million. The cost could be considerably higher, given the number of Oklahomans who have lost their jobs and work-related health insurance because of the pandemic.
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