Gov. Kevin Stitt stood before the Oklahoma legislature to deliver his first State of the State address Monday. He outlined key pieces of his executive budget for fiscal year 2020. The legislature will craft its own budget during the 2019 legislative session.
Stitt doubled down on his request to give the governor the authority to hire and fire more state agency heads. Five pieces of legislation have been filed by Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat to allow the governor to appoint the directors of Oklahoma’s five biggest agencies. House Speaker Charles McCall also supports the idea and claims it has support in his caucus.
Democrats disagree with the change.
“Right now the governor has the power to appoint the boards and commissions,” said Sen. Kay Floyd at a press conference following Stitt’s speech. “In the past they have relied on those appointments and the expertise of those agencies and boards and commissions to do the hiring and firing of the directors. We believe it's a good system.”
House Minority Leader Emily Virgin warned it could lead to nepotism.
Stitt promised to honor commitments to last year’s teacher pay raise leading up to the 2018 election, and he proposed increasing teacher pay by $1,200 in addition to the roughly $6,000 raise given to teachers before the 2018 walkout.
Stitt also called on the Legislature to fund a bonus program that would incentivize certified teachers to stay in Oklahoma after graduating college, return to teaching, or to move to the state.
But Stitt’s budget does not include additional classroom funding, something Democrats criticized.
“I think a lot of teachers would say I don't want to pay raise this year I would rather you put money into the formula because I need textbooks, I need materials,” said House Minority leader Emily Virgin.
One place where Democrats and Republicans seem to have common ground is criminal justice.
“We were pleased that the governor talked about criminal justice reform,” said Floyd. “We do believe, however, that no discussion regarding criminal justice reform can be complete if you're not discussing how the courts are funded.”
Though it was not part of his speech, Stitt supported changing how district attorneys fund their offices as a candidate. Republican leadership also expressed support for funding courts with state revenue, rather than fees and fines, when they announced their legislative agenda Jan. 29.
Stitt is asking state legislators to give the Department of Corrections more than $524 million for the next fiscal year, short of the $688 million requested by Director Joe Allbaugh to pay for prisoners’ medical care, building maintenance, staff raises and other improvements. Allbaugh plans to use public-private partnerships to tackle overcrowding in state prisons.
Stitt also proposed investing millions more into community programs like Tulsa’s Women in Recovery.
Last week Stitt said he was open to a discussion about expanding Medicaid. It was something he unequivocally opposed during the campaign season, saying federal dollars could be yanked away at any time. During his speech Stitt reiterated that concern.
“The estimated $150 million price tag today for Oklahoma to expand Medicaid could leave us down the road fronting more than $1 billion when the federal government pulls back on its commitment,” Stitt said.
Democrats refuted Stitt’s reasoning on Medicaid.
“We're very happy to accept federal money when it comes to transportation when it comes to education when it comes to many other core services. And so we think it only makes sense to do the same and health care,” said Virgin.
Stitt called for more funding for a doctor training program and child health insurance. The Graduate Medical Education Program and the the Children Health Insurance Program cost a combined $77 milion, and Stitt used them as examples of programs that used to enjoy federal support. Though the doctor training program lost federal funding last year, Congress extended CHIP funding through federal fiscal year 2023.
“We must be honest with ourselves and recognize that last year’s tax increases made us more dependent on the price of oil,” Stitt said.
Stitt’s assertion is true, according to the Office of Management and Budget Services, which released state revenue estimates in December.
“A bigger portion of our budget in 2020 is built on revenue from GPT than it was in 2019,” said agency spokesperson Shelley Zumwalt. “So even though we will have more revenue, we've put ourselves in a little bit more of a vulnerable place.”
In order to weather the next downturn, Stitt wants to build state savings up to $1 billion by the end of fiscal year 2020. The rainy day fund currently sits at $874 million, and Stitt is asking the legislature to set aside $250 million from projected revenue growth. Final state revenue figures will become available later in Feb.
Stitt also wants to reclaim the $30 million given to the Oklahoma Health Dept. during its false financial crisis in 2017 and use that money to fund performance audits.