Kevin Stitt begins second term as Oklahoma governor
Inauguration Day has come and gone and now Governor Kevin Stitt, the Oklahoma legislature and new State Superintendent Ryan Walters begin work on what could be a transformational 2023 in state government.
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Dick Pryor: This is Capitol Insider - taking you inside politics, policy and government in Oklahoma. I'm Dick Pryor with Quorum Call publisher Shawn Ashley. Shawn, statewide elected officials were sworn into office last Monday. What did Governor Kevin Stitt emphasize in his inaugural address?
Shawn Ashley: Not surprisingly, Stitt stressed his desire to make Oklahoma a top ten state. In fact, I believe he said that more than ten times. But a big part of his speech focused on education. It was probably the one topic that he talked about the most. Stitt said, “every kid deserves the best education possible, regardless of his or her economic status or zip code.” The governor noted thousands of students are taking advantage of the open transfer law that was expanded in 2021 to allow students to transfer between public schools. And he indicated he would again pursue a plan to expand school choice, which we saw in 2020, to mean sending state tax dollars to private schools. He combined the two issues by saying, “we have a responsibility to do whatever it takes to give our children - not just the next generation - but today's children right here in front of us access to top ten education choices.”
Dick Pryor: We can expect some turnover on the State Board of Education at the beginning of every gubernatorial term, but this time four of the six board members are not returning – two who did not want to be reappointed and two who were replaced. The other board member is the new state superintendent, Ryan Walters. So that's a lot of new people in charge of common education in Oklahoma.
Shawn Ashley: It certainly is. Jennifer Monies and Brian Bobek asked not to be reappointed. Monies was succeeded by Trent Smith, who was already a member of the board, but 2021 redistricting had put him in Monies’ district, allowing him to assume that seat. Bobek will be replaced by Kendra Wesson, who owns a Norman-based accounting firm. Stitt replaced Carlisha Williams Bradley and Estella Hernandez, two women of color, who also had the most public education experience on the board, with Donald Burdick, who co-founded four oil and gas companies and is currently the CEO of Olifant Energy II, and Suzanne Reynolds, a pharmacist with some higher ed teaching experience. Marla Hill is taking over District 3 from Smith. Hill is a homeschool teacher of her five children.
Dick Pryor: So, the new members have little or no experience in common education.
Shawn Ashley: That's right. And we'll get an idea of what direction the new board is headed January 26, when the board meets for the first time.
Dick Pryor: After being operated for two years by a private non-profit, the Oklahoma Public Health Laboratory is being placed back under the management of the Oklahoma State Department of Health. Shawn, why is that being changed now?
Shawn Ashley: Well, State Commissioner Keith Reed told the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services on Wednesday that it had always been the agency's plan to take back management of the lab. Now, keep in mind, we've seen the lab beset with numerous problems, including failing several government inspections and sending out large numbers of samples for testing. Reed told the subcommittee, “For me, what I'm focusing on is trying to get the public health lab back to the operational standard. I need it at now. I don't want to rely on another public health lab to meet the needs I feel like we should be able to do.”
Dick Pryor: And finally, the state vote on legalization of recreational marijuana is coming on March 7th, but election Board Secretary Paul Ziriax says his office does not have enough money to conduct that election. What's he doing to ensure the election happens and what will the legislature need to do?
Shawn Ashley: Ziriax spoke Tuesday to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on General Government and Transportation, which oversees his agency's budget, and he told the members he needs $850,000 to be able to conduct the election. That's on top of $350,000 he has left over from a 2022 appropriation. Ziriax stressed he needs the money appropriated by the middle of February since the election is in early March. After that meeting, Secretary Ziriax told me, “I am highly confident, based on conversations with legislative leadership and the governor's representatives, that we will have sufficient funds to run the March 7th election.” But obviously that bill's going to have to be fast tracked in the first few weeks of session.
Dick Pryor: Yes, they've got to get busy. Thanks, Shawn.
Shawn Ashley: You're very welcome.
Dick Pryor: And that's Capitol Insider. Until next time with Shawn Ashley, I'm Dick Pryor.