In this episode of Capitol Insider, KGOU's Dick Pryor and eCapitol's Shawn Ashley discuss Gov. Stitt and other Republican leaders' shifting stance on expanding Medicaid in Oklahoma. The two also preview the governor's budget proposal, which will be unveiled Feb. 4 following the State of the State address.
Dick Pryor: This is Capitol Insider, your weekly look inside Oklahoma politics and policy. I'm Dick Pryor with eCapitol News Director Shawn Ashley. Shawn, officially the legislative session began on Jan. 8 with organizational day. The session resumes Monday at noon, followed by the governor's State of the State address. Now the State of the State and the governor's executive budget lay out his vision for the year ahead. What signs have you seen that indicate where Governor Stitt is heading?
Shawn Ashley: Well I was one of several reporters who had an opportunity on Wednesday to hear from Governor Stitt and some of his plans. One of the things he talked about there was that, in keeping with what he said on the campaign trail, there would likely be a teacher pay raise proposal. He also talked extensively about criminal justice reform. Some of the ideas he has there, ranging from funding for local agencies like the Women in Recovery program over in Tulsa, to more general funding like $10 million that would go into community based programs throughout the state.
Pryor: Is Medicaid expansion in some form on the table?
Ashley: It appears that it is. Now this is not going to be part of Governor Stitt's State of the State most likely, nor one of his budget proposals. But when he and House Speaker Charles McCall and Senator Greg Treat were asked about it they all expressed a willingness to have a discussion about the issue. Now this is an idea that has been opposed by Republicans in the state of Oklahoma for many, many years. If you go back to 2011, Oklahoma gave back nearly 60 million dollars and refused to create its own health insurance marketplace and has fought the idea of Medicaid expansion. But now the three top Republican leaders in the state capitol are saying to do something that could be discussed.
Pryor: Three months ago on the campaign trail candidate Stitt said unequivocally that he was against Medicaid expansion. So what has changed?
Ashley: Well I think for Governor Stitt, and probably for the legislative leaders in particular, we are hearing rumblings that the idea might go to a vote of the people, that there are groups who might circulate an initiative petition with a Medicaid expansion plan that would then be voted on in the 2020 election. Now that's going to be a concern for Republicans because Medicaid expansion is an idea that largely has Democrats support in the state, and it might bring more of them out to the polling places to vote in an election. The other concern is the fact that it would then be a plan that they didn't create. It would be created by some other groups circulating the initiative petition, and that would take it out of their control.
Pryor: One of Stitt's top ideas is to give the governor more power to hire and fire agency directors. It appears the House speaker and the Senate President Pro Tem are on board. Democrats are not.
Ashley: That's exactly right. Governor Stitt talked about this idea several times of aligning executive branch agencies with the goals of the governor's office and has asked for this authority. Five pieces of legislation have been filed by Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat to do exactly that thing, looking at five of the top agencies. House Speaker Charles McCall also said he supported the idea and that it had support in his caucus. The Agency Performance and Accountability Commission which met on Wednesday also advanced a general recommendation for lawmakers and the governor to consider related to aligning the executive branch agencies with the will of the governor.
Pryor: You mentioned the accountability. There are already layers of accountability built into the state government system, and there is already a State Auditor and Inspector's Office that does audits of state agencies but is limited historically due to underfunding. So how is this new approach supposed to be better?
Ashley: Well I think the goal is to put more information in the hands of legislators. In fact, Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat, who has introduced Senate Bill 1 that would create the Legislative Office of Financial Transparency, has said explicitly on a couple of occasions that lawmakers are flying blind. They don't have all the information that they need, and he hopes that his proposal would help solve that problem.
Pryor: That's Capitol Insider. If You have questions e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact us on Twitter at @kgounews. We'll be airing the State of the State on KGOU beginning Monday at 12:30. Until next time, with Shawn Ashley, I'm Dick Pryor.