Rep. Albright gives update in Zoom chat
By Jeff Harrison
This is typically a busy time of year at the state Capitol as legislators try to pass bills and a budget.
But things are much quieter due to the coronavirus. The Capitol is closed to the public. And the house and senate are in recess. Many state lawmakers are working remotely to serve constituents.
State Rep. Kelly Albright spoke with the Midwest Beacon last week during a Zoom video call and provided updates on COVID-19. The House 95 Democrat represents Midwest City and part of Oklahoma City near Tinker Air Force Base.
Like many parents, Albright is wearing several hats these days. The former teacher says she is continuing to serve her constituents while helping her two young children with distance learning.
“A lot of people are in the situation where they may still have to work full time or work from home but are now expected to educate their child full time,” she said. “It’s a challenge for me, and I have been trained in education. So, I would like to share solidarity with those who are having a hard time.”
Coronavirus has been a dominant theme in Albright’s workload these days. The most common questions she receives from constituents are about unemployment. The state unemployment office has struggled to handle a spike in claims that hit last month. Albright believes the situation has improved as the agency adapts to the higher volume.
“We used to have about 1,500 claims per month and since the middle of March that has increased to 150,000 to 200,000 unemployment claims,” she said. “And that’s probably skewed low because people had trouble initially because they couldn’t get through when they called.”
Albright said she is also hearing from several people who work as independent contractors. Those “gig workers” are eligible for unemployment assistance through the federal government.
“There are some odd steps they need go through to eventually get unemployment from the federal government,” she said. “It is confusing and difficult. I wish it wasn’t that hard.”
Albright said lawmakers are also working to protect essential workers. Democrats in the State House have urged Gov. Kevin Stitt to temporarily declare grocery store, food retail, and food processing workers as emergency personnel in response to COVID-19. Albright said the designation would provide additional benefits, testing and treatment for the coronavirus and access to personal protective equipment.
“They are the unsung heroes of this time,” Albright said. “They are responsible for keeping food and supplies stocked and they’re putting themselves at risk doing it. They need more protection and support than they’re receiving.”
Albright said she is pleased with the response from mayors and local governments to COVID-19, but wishes the Governor took a strong stand with a “shelter in place” order. She also believes the state needs to be cautious before reopening businesses.
“We don’t want to assume we’re good and open it back and up and then see a big spike,” she said. “I know that happened with the Spanish Flu in 1918. People were tired of social distancing and started going out more. Then they saw another spike that was pretty devastating.”
Municipalities in Oklahoma are projecting significant losses in revenue due to the coronavirus. With many businesses closed, cities will see a drop in sales tax revenue, which funds core services such as public safety, streets, and parks. Albright said the state’s funding structure for municipalities has been problematic, but the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified it.
“I hope that we can shift away from how we fund municipalities, so we have more stable funding streams for them,” she said. “Sales tax is fine, but it ebbs and flows. Other places fund cities in a variety of ways. One of those is ad valorem taxes. No one likes new taxes, but we don’t like our cities to go under and not have funding for services that we need.”