Capitol Insider: Announcing The Top Ten Oklahoma Stories Of 2021 (Part One)
We close the year with a discussion of the top ten stories of the year in Oklahoma, beginning this week with numbers ten through six.
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 Shawn, this is the first segment in a two-part discussion highlighting the top ten Oklahoma political and government stories in 2021 as heard on Capitol Insider. So, we start with number ten. The Oklahoma economy rebounds.
Shawn Ashley: Yes, we've seen the Oklahoma economy do particularly well in 2021. What we saw was growth in employment and low unemployment rates across the state. At the same time, the Department of Commerce reported increases in the number of businesses in Oklahoma that were expanding, as well as those that were coming to the state for the first time to begin their operations here.
Dick Pryor: Number nine: Production of the Martin Scorsese directed film Killers of the Flower Moon brings national attention to the Oklahoma film industry. Executive director of the Oklahoma Film and Music Office, Tava Sofsky told us “there's a lot of eyes on Oklahoma right now and I think the image is really strong.” What's Oklahoma done to burnish that image over the last year?
Shawn Ashley: Well, Oklahoma came into 2021 with a little bit of a boost. Governor Kevin Stitt declared the film industry essential during the 2020 portion of the pandemic. As a result, productions were able to continue their work in Oklahoma, giving them a leg up on other states. During the 2021 regular session we saw lawmakers increase the cash rebate available to film and television productions taking place in the state. This rebate is designed for those more long-term productions, such as television series. And then, of course, we saw the expansion of studios in Oklahoma, such as Prairie Surf Media in downtown Oklahoma City, that provides sound stages. And of course, there's been the growth in the workforce and the education opportunities for those who are interested in entering the film industry.
Dick Pryor: (Number eight): 2021 saw several changes in key state government personnel. It's a real changing of the guard based on different reasons.
Shawn Ashley: Yeah, it is rather interesting what has happened this year. We saw Attorney General Mike Hunter, for example, resign his post back in May of 2021, and we also saw Health Commissioner Lance Frye leave his position. Adjutant General Mike Thompson was pushed out by Governor Kevin Stitt and replaced. And then we saw the retirement, of course, of Chancellor of Higher Education Glen Johnson and Stitt pushing out two members of the Oklahoma Health Care Authority board. The only doctors on that board.
Dick Pryor: Number seven: Governor Kevin Stitt and state legislators fight mask mandates in schools. This was a very divisive issue, resolved in different ways with different implications. Some schools drew clear lines with how they were going to respond to elected officials, and it was rather extraordinary.
Shawn Ashley: Yes, Senate Bill 658 prohibited school boards from adopting mask mandates. But what we saw were several school districts where the superintendent or other administrators implemented those mandates, working their way around the law and saying that it was the health and well-being of their students and staff that was most important. Currently, this bill is held up on an injunction and is pending review by the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
Dick Pryor: Does this foreshadow anything we might see in 2022?
Shawn Ashley: Oh, I think it most certainly does. While lawmakers prohibited mask mandates during the 2021 regular session, we're already seeing discussions about whether they will prohibit vaccine mandates either in a special session or in the 2022 regular session
Dick Pryor: And, number six on our top ten list: Polarizing rhetoric and legislation at the State Capitol. Now, we've been covering the Capitol for a lot of years. The level of cooperation fluctuates, but in general, Oklahoma elected officials tend to get along even when they disagree. However, in the last year, the number of partisan attacks has risen noticeably and the tone of the rhetoric is much harsher. You're there every day, Shawn. What do you see?
Shawn Ashley: Well, what we see is that some of this harsh rhetoric is making its way into legislation being considered and approved by lawmakers. We saw that with House Bill 1775, which now governs how public schools and colleges and universities can teach on certain matters related to race. We saw that effort with Senate Bill 2, the transgender sports bill, that ultimately did not get heard in both chambers. We also saw that over the summer during the rally here at the Capitol, in opposition to mask mandates and vaccine requirements, and more than likely, we're going to see that again in legislation being filed for the 2022 regular session.
Dick Pryor: Thank you, Shawn.
Shawn Ashley: You're very welcome.
Dick Pryor: Next week, we'll talk about the top five stories of the year in Oklahoma as we welcome 2022. And, we'd like to hear from you. Email your questions to email@example.com or contact us on Twitter @kgounews and @ecapitol. Until next time, with Shawn Ashley, I'm Dick Pryor.