When Gov. Mary Fallin addressed lawmakers in her first State of the State speech in 2011, she implored them to fix a $600 million hole in the state budget. Seven years later, in her final State of the State address, the legislature is faced with a similar task: filling an estimated $425 million gap in the budget.
In a Capitol Insider interview, Fallin says she hopes her legacy will be a permanent fix to these problems.
“I hope that when we finish this session, my legacy will be that we solved the budget crisis. And if something happens and the House and the Senate doesn't vote to do that, I hope they'll say that she pushed then hard and gave it her best to try to move the needle to fix things in the state,” Fallin said.
Fallin called lawmakers back in special session twice in 2017, asking that they find a way to fill a hole created by an Oklahoma Supreme Court decision striking down a cigarette fee. Recently, the governor has expressed support for a plan put forth by a group of business leaders. She says the Step Up Oklahoma plan would put the state on stable footing.
Unable to come up with an answer for the governor’s call before the regular session, state lawmakers are still tasked with balancing this fiscal year’s budget as the second 2017 special session runs concurrent to the regular 2018 legislative session.
Dick Pryor: The start of the 2018 Oklahoma legislative session is upon us, and this is Capitol Insider, your inside look at Oklahoma politics and policy. I'm Dick Pryor. eCapitol news director Shawn Ashley is on assignment. The first day of the session is marked by the governor's State of the State address and release of the executive budget. Joining us to discuss the upcoming session is the Governor of the State of Oklahoma, Mary Fallin. Welcome, governor.
Gov. Mary Fallin: Hi, Dick. Good to be with you again.
Pryor: Thank you. Great to be with you. Let's get right to it. What can we expect to hear in your final State of the State address?
Fallin:Well, it is my final State of the State address. It has been a great pleasure being governor over these many years, and looking forward to beginning our next legislative session. It's going to be an interesting legislative session because not only will we be starting a new session on Feb. 5, but we are also still in special session. In my State of the State speech, basically what I'm going to be focusing on as a main topic is the budget, budget, budget. We’ve got to fix the budget. We have got to stabilize our fiscal condition of our state, put us on a predictable path for prosperity.
Pryor: Revenue-raising measures are always difficult to pass, especially in an election year. Are more cuts and kicking the can down the road an acceptable option?
Fallin: Well, that is the choice that we have. Either we fix things, put us on a right course, a right path for our state, give our teachers a pay raise, get teachers in the classrooms, or we can keep kicking the can down the road like we have been for many, many years. We have made many, many cuts to various state agencies various services. We've cut personnel and in-state government. We've taken money from one fund and put it another fund, what I call “robbing Peter to pay Paul, and Paul runs out of cash.” We've been using a lot of artificial cash over the years to balance a budget. But it's time to right our course.
Pryor: A new story in the highly respected publication The Economist focuses on low teacher pay and severe budget cuts for education. This story is headlined "What's the matter with Oklahoma?" And I know throughout your career you have promoted economic development in the state. What does it do to those efforts and the state's image when state government continually fails to address those glaring problems and invites that kind of story?
Pryor: It does affect our brand and our image and it really hit home with me not too long ago when we had an economic development trip to New York and we were meeting with site locators that work with major Fortune 500 companies that look at the different benefits of doing business in a particular state. So there are great things happening in Oklahoma. We have done some great things to make us more business friendly. So I give the speech about great things that are happening in Oklahoma: why it's good to do business here, low cost of living, low cost of electricity, great place to live, great quality of life. And then this one site locator comes up to me. He says, "Well governor, I love everything about your state. I brought business to your state in the past." But he said, "I'm reading some headlines saying that you're so poor as a state that you only have four-day school weeks." And he said, "how am I supposed to recruit Fortune 500 companies, which need a quality, skilled, relevant workforce, when you can only pay for four-day weeks in your state and you have a shortage of teachers?" And of course I have to say, "Well look, that's only for about 20 percent of our rural schools, some that have chosen to go to four-day school weeks. That's not the norm in our state. But we're still a great state to be in. It's a great state to do business." So it really hit home with me that people from out of state watch what goes on Oklahoma. They read the articles like you mentioned in The Economist, and they see those things, and it's not helpful to our brand as a state.
Pryor: With just about a year to go, what do you see as your legacy as governor?
Fallin: Well, I hope that when we finish this session that my legacy will be that we solved the budget crisis. And if something happens and the House and the Senate doesn't vote to do that, I hope they'll say that she pushed them hard and gave it her best to try to move the needle to fix things in the state. But, we've tried to build a stronger economy and we are and we do have a stronger economy.
Pryor: So the final chapter has yet to be written?
Fallin: Someone asked me earlier today, "Usually a governor in their last year is a lame duck. How do you feel your last year's is going to be?" and I said, "Well, it's not going to be a lame-duck year. We've got a lot of things going on this year." But, there's always a lot to do in government, but it's a great experience. And it's been a lot of fun doing it.
Pryor: Gov. Mary Fallin, pleasure, as always, visiting with you. Thank you.
Fallin: Thank you, Dick. Appreciate it.
Pryor: You can hear more of this conversation with Gov. Fallin on the Capitol Insider Extra podcast. And we invite you to listen to KGOU for live coverage of the governor's State of the State address beginning Monday at noon. Until next time, I'm Dick Pryor.