Capitol Insider: Governor Outlines Agenda For Legislative Session
In a wide ranging interview shortly after his State of the State address, Governor Kevin Stitt discussed his goals for the 2021 Oklahoma Legislative Session with KGOU's Dick Pryor and eCapitol's Shawn Ashley. In part one of the interview (first broadcast on February 5), Stitt discussed state-tribal relations; in part two he talked about education, economic development, government regulation, the state's coronavirus response, his relationship with the Oklahoma House of Representatives and Senate and 2021 policy priorities. This interview was conducted on February 4, 2021.
Dick Pryor: This is Capitol Insider, your weekly look inside Oklahoma politics, policy and government. I'm Dick Pryor with eCapitol news director, Shawn Ashley. And again this week, our guest is the governor of the state of Oklahoma, Kevin Stitt. This is part two of our interview. And Governor, it's good to have you back with us.
Governor Kevin Stitt: Thank you so much. Such an honor to be back with you guys.
Shawn Ashley: Unity was one of the themes of your speech and of your agenda, which you called the people's agenda. In concrete terms, what specific policies will you and legislative leaders be focusing on this legislative session?
Governor Kevin Stitt: On the education front, there’s two things that I believe we need to get passed this session. Number one is our funding formula, and I talked about this in our State of the State speech. It's really a complicated, weird system - instead of just saying how many kids are in this school district today, and that's how many schools get the funding. So, we want to change that. The other thing is we want to open up open transfer. We believe that parents should have a choice of where their kids go to school. There may be extracurricular activities, there may be bullying situations. There may be a situation where a parent just says, “you know what, I don't want my kids - there's a bad set of friends - my kids are going down the wrong track at this school. I've got to get them out of that environment, and so I'm going to move them to this school.” It could be as simple as my kid is really excelling in math and I want them to go to this AP school. They should not be locked in on their zip code. Michigan, for example, in 1996, their legislature passed a similar thing that I'm trying to get passed in Oklahoma that just says parents have the right to move their kids to any public school they want.
So that's a concrete example of two things that we want to change this year in education that we feel like would put power back in the parents. It also would create competition in the schools. And if a school is losing tons of students, but that school will actually end up doing better long term, there'll be less kids in the classroom. Outcomes will be better for that school. That's what we're seeing happen in Florida. That's what we're seeing happen in Chicago and Detroit. And we need something better in the state of Oklahoma.
Dick Pryor: Governor, as you've made clear, you want Oklahoma schools to get their students back in the classroom. Oklahoma has long favored local control over schools. Do you think the state should be more directive in telling local school districts how to handle their decisions, such as the reaction to the coronavirus?
Governor Kevin Stitt: As you know, Tulsa Public Schools is the only school in the state that hasn't been open for the last three hundred and twenty-eight days. Parents are just at wit's end. Again, we have to get our kids back in school. They're safer in school. Even San Francisco is suing their school district, saying they've got to be back in school.
The Democratic mayor of Chicago is demanding their schools go back. They're asking President Biden now to really push kids getting back in school. We've got to get our kids back in school. The thing that's different about Oklahoma that I think is important for Oklahomans to understand other states, the governor actually appoints the superintendent of schools.
Well, in our state, you vote for the governor and you want the governor to do something in education, but there's a separate person over here. This is superintendent of schools. So, I've been very vocal in the fact that I think the governor should appoint the superintendent of schools so we can all be on the same page to move things forward. I, I believe in the local school board system, but I'm also going to when I see what's happening statewide, that every other school district’s in person, then I'm going to be putting pressure on that one school district that's continuing to harm kids by keeping them out of the classroom, or now, I think it's three hundred twenty-eight days.
Shawn Ashley: Governor, in your State of the State address and executive budget included a number of policy proposals. What is most important to you this legislative session that you would be willing to work the hardest on and to spend the most political capital on to achieve?
Governor Kevin Stitt: Well, I don't want to…try to narrow it down to two or three. I mean, I hate to just pick one thing. The education stuff is so important for the future of our state and for those parents of those kids that are just actually stuck in a zip code that their schools aren't open. They need the right to be able to transfer. So that's so important.
Also, the governor runs the state agency, so there's 33,000 state employees that provide services that Oklahomans rely on. The problem is our state agencies have an outdated, very restrictive hiring process, and it's called a classified employee system. So, it's basically like a merit protection type system or a unionized workforce. There's already due process, there's already anti-discrimination, and you can't wrongfully terminate someone. There's a due process for an employee to go through. We don't need an added protection for state employees. So, that's something that I think is going to help long term for the next fifty years if we can fix what we call our merit protection system. It's not a sexy move, but it will move the needle to allow us to promote employees better, and you heard me kind of give this story in the State of the State, so I would say that's one of one of my most important things that is going to help Oklahoma out for the next 20 years.
Dick Pryor: Governor, last year, you vetoed the budget the legislature presented to you and then the legislature overrode the veto. Lawmakers delivered a message about their priorities and their authority. Has that affected your approach to governing this year?
Governor Kevin Stitt: Not really. That was just a political move inside the building. We got into a fight on the budget situation. And as you know, I was I was really disappointed with the amount of money we were spending. I thought we should cut more. There's different state agencies we should have cut. We were looking at 13 percent unemployment. We were looking at a pandemic (that) was happening. Oil prices went negative. And I was raising the, the alarm that we were going to have a budget shortfall. We had a billion dollars saved the first session – our largest savings account in state history. We were pulling out a whole bunch of money out of savings. So, there were things that I was trying to get their attention on that we should have cut, but at the end of the day, that was last year. That's over with.
The legislature writes the budget, but because of what we did, it's really turning beneficial to this year. Not only our savings got us through, but also not appropriating so much money and raising the base level expenses from all those state agencies. It's really proven to be critical this year. We're not having the budget shortfalls that all these other states are having and we won't have to cut core services, which is, which is just a great thing.
So, I look forward to working with the chairmans of both the House and the Senate. They're my friends. I actually just left Chairman Wallace's office and some of the other…Sheila Dills…I was just going to walk in the house halls and talking to everybody, I've got great friends over there. And that was last year. And this year we're ready to move on and get another good budget together.
Shawn Ashley: I was speaking to Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat, who said he had a genuine friendship with you. And, of course, you would have policy disagreements, but you would try to work those out.
Governor Kevin Stitt: I think that's right. I mean, I had breakfast with Pro Tem Treat and Speaker McCall on Tuesday. I really like those guys personally. They're good friends. Pro Tem Treat has been around this building a lot longer than I have and understands this building and so I look to him for advice and what we should do. And again, one thing I told Speaker and the Pro Tem first time I met ‘em when we sat down after I won and I just said, “listen, the three of us can really move Oklahoma forward. We can do some things to make Oklahoma (a) top ten state. Change is hard. Doing things different is hard. But if the three of us get together, we really can move the needle.”
So, that's my whole goal is continuing to work together to move Oklahoma forward. And that's my whole job. I really take my job to work for all four million Oklahomans seriously. And that's why I'm about pushing forward and I just want to be top ten in everything we're doing and if we're forty-sixth in something that's not acceptable for me.
Dick Pryor: Governor Stitt, in your State of the State speech, you praised Oklahoma's response to COVID-19 and said, “other states are realizing the smart approach in Oklahoma.” What barometer is your team using to determine the right balance between public health and the economy?
Governor Kevin Stitt: The three things that that we set out from the very beginning, I told my team back in March of 2020 when this all was hitting, is you can't look at one set of facts in a vacuum and try to make all your decisions based on one set of facts. There's more than just the number of cases in your state that you're dealing with, and I think people are starting to wake up with that idea. I mean, I just I just saw that that Las Vegas, the high schools in Las Vegas’s school system is going back in session because of the number of suicides that are happening in their school district, these kids at home. So that's a factor. Isn't the mental health of our young people important, as well? Obviously, we have to protect the health and lives of Oklahomans and look at the data and be safe and talk about innovation and social distancing and wearing masks and washing your hands and all that. But I said at the same time, we also have to keep our kids in school safely. We also have to think about the health of our businesses and keeping our businesses open safely.
The economy is not a light switch that you can all of a sudden just flip on. So those were the three pillars that I set out back in March of 2020. And I've asked our team to kind of think of those things together as they're making decisions for our state. And you'll notice that our numbers are better than most other states that have taken very draconian approaches. And maybe you're only looking at one of those sets of facts and don't really worry about the kids being in school or businesses. And they're waking up to the fact that their cases were not any different than they were in Oklahoma and yet they've wrecked their economy, their budget situation, and now they're looking at what cuts they're going to have to make in their different state agencies this year and there's just multiple consequences that are happening because (of) the approach that those states took.
So, really happy with our team, our seven-day average right now is twenty-two hundred and thirty-four cases. That's down forty-seven percent from the peak. Hospitalizations are down forty-five percent from the peak. I'm cautiously optimistic. I'm not by any means declaring victory at this point. We still need to be cautious, but down forty-five percent and forty-seven percent is a really, really good point. That if this thing was on the hockey stick growing, we wouldn't see forty-seven percent declines.
Shawn Ashley: But January was the deadliest month so far in Oklahoma. What else do you want to see done in the state to accelerate the sprint toward what you described as “the light at the end of the tunnel”?
Governor Kevin Stitt: Well, I just was over at the health department earlier today and was over there in the meetings with our vaccination team, our National Guard, the whole group that was there, we're right now seventh in the country in vaccinations per capita. And so, I just was encouraging them, thanking them on behalf of Oklahomans. What a great job that they're doing. We've gone through the health care workers, first responders, all the long-term care facilities. So, we're trying to figure out how can we also expediate getting teachers across the finish line. I'm asking how many doses we're getting back into the state? What do they need from me? How can we push more?
But I think that that's the light at the end of the tunnel – is that the vaccine is getting done. And like I said, my vision is (to) get our summer back. It's going to be accomplished by continuing to lead the nation in vaccinations. And if you think about it now, we've got more people vaccinated that have had the coronavirus or tested positive since March. So, we're 394,000 Oklahomans have tested positive. We've tested over three-point-one million Oklahomans and about 360,000 of those Oklahomans have recovered. We have about thirty thousand in a 14-day window right now, but now we’ve vaccinated close to 500,000 Oklahomans. And we're going to keep that pressure up and I believe that's why we're seeing these numbers come down as well. I've asked the health department the same thing today, and they said that's kind of a lagging indicator. You got cases, hospitalizations and deaths. And they said that really those deaths are…it's a lagging indicator from the cases is what they told me. But I'm asking those exact same questions you are.
Dick Pryor: Keeping the economy strong is always a gubernatorial priority. You've been active in inviting visitors to come to Oklahoma and encouraging businesses to locate in Oklahoma, citing a favorable business climate even during the pandemic. What specific strategy will you take this year to, as you have called it, “unleash” Oklahoma businesses?
Governor Kevin Stitt: Well, there's three kind of reforms that we want. There's regulatory reform. And that's, that is, I've launched www.breakthetape.ok.gov, which basically is looking at our excessive administrative code and fixing all those outdated, redundant regulations. There's three thousand seven-hundred sections of red tape currently on the books. And I'm asking all of my state agencies to go through that and make sure there's no redundant, unclear regulations that are going to keep businesses from starting.
We've got occupational licensing reform that that we can make it easier for people to be licensed in the state of Oklahoma. My executive order, for example, allows nurses and doctors to practice in the state of Oklahoma. We have lifted some shipping to make sure we can get supplies here. That was all related to COVID, but why not make these things permanent if I have a nurse that wants to practice here that's licensed across the border in Texas. So those are things that we want to make it easier.
Tax reform is something that I'm working with the House and the Senate on to continue to be able to attract companies. We believe that taxes are an important factor in where companies are located and then education is also - the skilled workforce is something that's really important to attract businesses. And then it's just simple blocking and tackling. And that's why my Commerce Department is so important and I meet with them regularly to find out what industries we're strategically going after, what states are we strategically going after, and just the fact that we appreciate business here in Oklahoma because we understand that's where everything starts.
It really puts us on a winning playing field against some of these other states. So those are the three kind of reforms we're doing and then also putting boots on the ground and making phone calls to those companies and inviting them to come to Oklahoma.
Shawn Ashley: Governor, you’ve often mentioned that you came to state service from the private sector as a businessman. Now you're halfway through your first term. Has working in government suited you well enough that you want to seek another term as governor?
Governor Kevin Stitt: (Laughs) I'll tell you this. I have loved my time as governor. It's such an honor. You got to remember, I'm just a I'm a guy like everybody that grew up here and went to elementary school in Norman, Oklahoma - John Adams, Longfellow, West Mid High, and then Norman High School - and then went to Oklahoma State for college and never dreamed that I would be sitting here as governor. But that's what our forefathers wanted. They wanted people to be successful in the private sector, leave their careers and go serve for a time and then go back. They did not think that politics would be an industry and a career. And so that's the way I think this is supposed to work. So, I'll be letting Oklahomans know that and hopefully Oklahoma thinks I've done a good job and want to hire me again if I choose to do that. But, at some point, I'm going to be back in the private sector and cheering on the next guy that's serving as governor.
Dick Pryor: Governor Kevin Stitt, we appreciate your responses and good luck in the session and in the year ahead.
Governor Kevin Stitt: Thank you.
Dick Pryor: And that's Capitol Insider. If you have questions, e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact us on Twitter @kgounews and @ecapitol. You can also find us online at kgou.org and ecapitol.net. Until next time, with Shawn Ashley, I’m Dick Pryor.