The Oklahoma Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in a lawsuit that asks the state to restart pandemic-era unemployment benefits.
Attorney Mark Hammons represented a group of Oklahomans that want the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission to renew the programs. Gov. Kevin Stitt ended four pandemic-era benefits in June and replaced them with a back-to-work incentive.
Hammons argued to a referee of the Oklahoma Supreme Court that Stitt’s executive order ending the benefits ahead of their natural expiration on Sept. 6 was outside his abilities of his office.
The four programs, all of which are funded by the federal government, are Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), Mixed Earner Unemployment Compensation (MEUC), and Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC).
By ending the programs, Hammons said, Stitt effectively was passing policy.
“If the governor has the power to set policy then the line between executive power and legislative authority is gravely undermined,” Hammons said.
Andy Ferguson, of the Oklahoma attorney general’s office, argued Stitt had the ability to enter the programs when the U.S. Congress passed the CARES Act, so he would have the ability to exit.
“(Hammons says) we don’t have the authority to leave. Well, this is how we got into the program. If we didn’t have the authority to leave, none of these benefits were valid from the beginning,” Ferguson said.
State statute tasks OESC with securing “all advantages” to Oklahomans. Hammons argued the statute covers temporary federal programs like the ones included in the CARES Act.
“The governor’s argument is, ‘I’m the governor and I can do what I want,’ and that’s not true,” Hammons said. “He doesn’t have the right to turn down money for people who are covered by the act.”
The referee said at the conclusion of Wednesday’s arguments that he will pass along his notes to the nine justices of the Supreme Court of Oklahoma, who will later decide to take action or ask for additional information.