Although the session was cut short by COVID-19, we did get nearly 200 bills signed into law. I’ll be discussing some of these measures in the coming weeks as well as providing updates as our state’s economy works to recover.
One bill that will help our state tremendously in the future is HB 4018 creating the Rural Broadband Expansion Act. Under the new law, a council will be assembled to study rural broadband access around the state and determine the costs for improving access to all Oklahomans. Stakeholders from various industries, officials from both the executive and legislative branches and rural stakeholders will be responsible with devising a plan to help get this basic 21st century need to all Oklahomans.
Sadly, Oklahoma currently ranks 47th in rural broadband access. This has caused tremendous problems, especially the last few months when students couldn’t access their online studies, unemployed individuals couldn’t file their weekly claim or access their benefits, and families couldn’t order food online. We are a digital nation. Everything you need is on the internet but many Oklahomans don’t have access to it so this council will work to change that. The council will be assembled and must hold its first meeting by the end of July.
Just as it was vital to have a land line in the past, it’s now imperative that families be connected to the internet. The health crisis changed many aspects of our lives including how government services are provided. While many changes will be temporary, how government services will be provided may be more permanent given the necessary budget cuts that had to be made this year due to low energy prices and the pandemic’s effect on our state’s economy.
One example of how state agencies are modernizing their services while also protecting their staff from furloughs or layoffs is the Department of Human Services (DHS) announcing they’ll be closing offices and allowing their staff to telework. These include the Jefferson and Tillman County DHS offices. There has been some concern over this, but I met with DHS and was assured that they are working through every single issue that may arise following this change. Everyone’s jobs are safe, and this will help the agency continue providing services while making the required 4% budget cut in the coming fiscal year.
Some agencies are still teleworking out of abundance of caution regarding COVID-19. Given that most state agencies received 4% budget cuts, teleworking may continue to be used in the coming year to help cut costs and protect jobs.
Lots of changes have occurred at the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission (OESC). This small agency is tasked with distributing unemployment benefits and prior to the pandemic only received an average of 1,800 unemployment claims a week but have reached as high as nearly 94,000 in one week. The historic number of Oklahomans filing for unemployment (more than 500,000) uncovered some major problems with the agency’s outdated technology and website.
My heart goes out to those of you who have been unemployed and waiting for assistance the last couple of months. Hopefully, you were able to find assistance from other organizations and charities to help get you through this difficult time.
I’m pleased to say that OESC hired a new executive director and have major tremendous strides in resolving the backlog of cases, especially for those who are self-employed and have been waiting on the federal PUA, FPUC and PEUC benefits. Major technological, website and program upgrades helped OESC successfully resolve more than 70% of the backlog cases leaving only around 3,000 more to address. Everyone should have their benefits in the next couple of weeks.
Again, if you haven’t received any benefits please contact them to get an update on your case. If you need further help, please don’t hesitate to contact our office and we’ll assist however we can.
Thank you again for the privilege of serving our district and the State of Oklahoma in the Senate. If I can be of any assistance, you can reach me at (405) 521-5563 or Chris.Kidd@oksenate.gov.