In this episode of Capitol Insider KGOU's Dick Pryor and eCapitol's Shawn Ashley sit down with outgoing Governor Mary Fallin.
The three retrace some of her major decisions during her eight years leading the state, such as rejecting federal Medicaid dollars and commuting the sentences of 30 incarcerated people. Fallin also discusses the challenges of being an elected official and her legacy as the state's first woman governor.
Dick Pryor: This is Capitol Insider, your weekly look inside Oklahoma politics and policy. I'm Dick Pryor with eCapitol News Director Shawn Ashley at the state capitol. Our guest is Governor Mary Fallin, who is in the waning days of her second term as governor. Governor thanks for joining us.
Mary Fallin: Well it's a pleasure to be here with you.
Pryor: You came into office with the state heading into a recession and only $1...
Fallin: Two Dollars. Two dollars. Double that!
Pryor: So you came into office with the state heading into a recession and only two dollars...
Fallin: $2.03 exactly.
Pryor: ...in The rainy day fund. It was a challenging time, and you had to weather a tough fiscal situation.
Fallin: Well it's interest you mentioned that. We've actually had two economic downturns during my term as governor, which is highly unusual for a governor. Usually a governor always has one economic downturn. But I came in in the middle of a downturn, so it was a very challenging time...Lots of needs in our state. And so today I'm happy to say that, even though we've experienced a second downturn with the energy recession that hit in 2014 and lasted three years, we have now come out of that. We diversified our economy tremendously. We brought in so many different industries outside the oil and gas industry that that will really help stabilize things and whether those storms.
Shawn Ashley: What can Oklahoma do to diversify even further?
Fallin: Well, that's a good question. The biggest thing we can do to help us be ready to diversify and meet whatever companies might be looking at locating in Oklahoma or expanding in Oklahoma is to continue to develop our workforce, and that is something I worked very hard on for many many years. And if we want to continue to attract these better paying jobs-- and by the way our per capita incomes up tremendously too-- then we have to have the right degrees and certificates and a skilled, relevant workforce.
Pryor: Health continues to be a problem in Oklahoma. The latest ranking from the United Health Foundation ranks Oklahoma as one of the five unhealthiest states in the U.S.--number 46. In retrospect, do you think it was a mistake to not accept the federal dollars to expand Medicaid?
Fallin: You know, at the time our economy was not good. As you mentioned we had gone through and were coming out of a national recession. We only had $2.03 in our bank, high unemployment rate. We had a big budget deficit. But, at the time, we didn't have the money. It was estimated that to match the 90 percent match in federal funds for expanding Obamacare would cost an additional 10 percent match, which would be about $100 million. And, at that point, we were already having to cut some of the state services, having problems with funding corrections, the Department Human Services... We'd come out of a federal lawsuit and were having to pay a lot more money into Department of Human Services to protect our children, which we've done by the way. But, at the time, we didn't have the money. And then people forget the legislature took a vote on a House bill that I signed, but it was passed by good margins, that said that we would not do Obamacare in Oklahoma, not do the Medicaid expansion. So we have a law on the books that's currently still there, and it'll be up to the legislature and a future governor if they feel like it's something they want to address to be able to address it.
Ashley: Do you think it's something they should consider?
Fallin: I'm sure they will. I mean there's always talk by different elected officials that they should look at that, and I'll just leave that up to the next group of people that want to run things around here.
Pryor: Late in 2018 you commuted the sentences of 30 people. How did you reach those decisions?
Fallin: It was one of the greatest opportunities I had and one that I felt really really made a difference in people's lives and in public policy. There were times that if you were an elected official and you talked about any changes to public policy other than putting stiffer sentences on things you were considered to be soft on crime. So I've been through all those debates. So over the years of getting the criminal justice reform done in the state of Oklahoma and changing policy, I also had the opportunity to look at those who had been sentenced to really long sentences for some type of a non-violent, low level offenses because they had an addiction issue. So after we passed State Question 780, 781, which was a statewide vote by the public to change our felonies to misdemeanors and to reclassify some of those types of addiction issue charges, I had the opportunity to work with the Tulsa law school and some other nonprofit organizations that went through about 800 applications of inmates that probably would not be in prison today under the current law, would not have had the same sentencing.
Ashley: You were the state's first female governor. You were originally elected in a campaign against a female opponent. Do you think, at least in the political sphere to begin with, that you have changed the tone for women in Oklahoma?
Fallin: Yeah I do. I do. And, you know, it's always nice when people come up to me and say, "Gosh I've watched your career all these years. My daughter so has a picture of you when she was 3, and now she's 16 and wants another picture with you." You know, it's it's been fun to be that role model at different times and to show that if you persevere, don't give up, and that there will be tough times that you go through. There will be times you have to take stands to make things happen...
Pryor: Do you recommend a career in politics?
Fallin: Well you know it's been a very rewarding experience. I tell people, and I'm totally serious about this, it's like going back to college. I can tell you a little bit about bridge construction. I fixed 85 percent of the bridges in Oklahoma now over the last eight years. I can tell you a lot about workers compensation reform. We've lowered our worker's compensation rates 64 percent. I can tell you a lot about foster care and foster children. We've reduced our children in state custody by 23 percent because we boosted foster care and adoptions in our state. I can tell you something about water rights and Indian tribes and state rights from selling our big water lawsuit in our state. There are so many different things from industry to business to the health of Oklahoma. It's a great learning experience. It's like going to college and just learning a lot of things about a lot of topics. But you never feel like you know enough. But It's very rewarding, and it's a hard job. I will tell you that.
Ashley: What would you say is the thing that has surprised you most about being governor? Good or bad.
Fallin: Well I think the thing that's smart most difficult is how quickly people with and groups with alterior motives and agendas will spread false information. That makes it very challenging to govern. You know, I had actually push for three years in my State of the State speech to give the teachers a pay raise. I got in front of the legislature and said, " We have to give the teachers a pay raise. Here's some ideas. You choose your own. But here's some ideas of what we can do to get the revenue." And, remind you, that was when we were in an economic downturn. Trying to do that it was a very very difficult. And we finally, after two special sessions... I vetoed a budget during the first special session. But the second special session went clear into regular session this past year. And finally, after all the knock-down drag-out we had the Capitol, and failed votes, and all different kinds of reiterations budgets and trying to get things stabilized for the state financially, ee got a teacher pay raise done. And I signed it four days before the teachers went on strike. And it was frustrating to me that we were able to get the teacher pay raise done. I was very proud of that. 6 percent pay raise for them. Sorry, $6,000 pay raise for them, 16 percent pay raise, and then 19 percent overall increase in total funding for education. $33 million for textbooks. You always hear people say, "Well we need more," but we gave $33 million this year. Now would we like to have more? Absolutely. But in the midst of a budget downturn that's quite a big accomplishment. Plus we got three quarters of the legislature, both Democrat and Republican, which has never ever happened before ever in the history of Oklahoma, to vote on a revenue package to be able to do that. But yet after having 50,000 people at the Capitol you would have thought we'd done nothing. So that's kind of frustrating at times. Trying to get the message out, what's true what's not true. Very proud of what we did get done. But that can be challenging at times.
Pryor: How do you want historians to view your administration?
Fallin: Well probably as a woman that wasn't scared to tackle tough issues and to be able to find solutions to them. There's been times that we've gone through some tough times. I'll give you an example, not real fun, but some things we've had to deal with. The Department of Corrections had some employees that botched execution years ago. Nothing that I was at, not in my control, but as a governor you're always the person that gets the blame. And that's fine. That's what the job is. But be able to fix that system, and being able to develop new protocols, learn from the experience and to try to get a better way to do that was rewarding in the end, even though it is tough. We went through a time period where we had earthquakes in Oklahoma. That was a shock. I'd had a lot of tornadoes. I had the Moore tornado. I had massive grass fires and ice storms. But to have earthquakes all of a sudden was was a different experience. But after we put a seismistic council together immediately we were able to find out that we were injecting water into some formation and zones into the earth that were it was too high pressured, down too far and the bedrock of Oklahoma. So once we changed the policies and laid things in place for the Corporation Commission, we reduced him by 80 percent. Now we don't have hardly any earthquakes and they are all under 3.0. So being able to tackle some of these tough issues and make a difference...It's hard work, but it is very rewarding when you're able to fix those things. So I would encourage anyone that wants to serve in public office, but just know it's is not always a rosy road going down it.
It's been a great honor to be able to serve the state. I'm finishing up 28 years so I've enjoyed watching Oklahoma go through all kinds of transformations and reiterations bet. I'm really proud that we're leaving the state in such a great position financially and low unemployment and lots of people employed, but it's been fun to work for the people of Oklahoma. So thank you for the opportunity.
Pryor: Governor Mary Fallin, it's a pleasure visiting with you. Thank you.
That's Capitol insider. If you have questions, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact us on Twitter at @kgounews. You can also find us only at kgou.org and ecapitol.net. Until next time, with Shawn Ashley, I'm Dick Pryor.