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Long Story Short: Stitt vetoes legislature’s limits on State Superintendent’s media outreach

Oklahoma Watch, June 26, 2024

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt on Friday vetoed limits on spending on public relations by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters and instead issued a broader executive order stopping state agencies from sole-source contracts for public relations.

It’s unclear if that executive order would apply to any contracts the state Education Department has for public relations that were under scrutiny by lawmakers. Agency spokesman Dan Isett said it wouldn’t because they were issued under the state’s request-for-proposal procurement process. But the governor’s office said the Office of Management and Enterprise Services’ legal team would review outside PR contracts and let agency heads know if they were covered by the executive order.

“Taxpayers should never foot the bill for the political ambition of an individual, regardless of his or her position in state government,” Stitt said in the executive order.

In his veto message, Stitt said Senate Bill 1122 put restrictions on just one agency and one elected official. He said the plain meaning of the section limiting spending on media interviews or public promotion was unclear. The governor said he vetoed another section of the education spending-limits bill regarding federal grant applications because it unduly inserted the legislative branch into an executive agency.

Lawmakers approved the limits on public relations following an investigation by Oklahoma Watch into Walters’ national publicity contract with Washington, D.C.-based Vought Strategies, a deal some lawmakers criticized as a misuse of public funds.

Walters hired Vought Strategies to book national media interviews and write op-eds for an estimated $5,000 a month. The initial contract ends June 30 with the possibility of three, one-year extensions.

Emails obtained by Oklahoma Watch show Vought having extensive conversations with state Education Department officials before a request for proposal was issued. At the time, Vought was being paid under a temporary agreement. In August, an agency official asked Vought to provide a quote since work was being performed without a purchase agreement in place.

“What do you mean by quote? Ryan Walters said he’d pay me $5,000 a month. Is that what you’re referring to?,” Vought said in an Aug. 9 email.

Walters has been a frequent guest on national TV and conservative radio programs, speaking on a variety of topics including fentanyl, the Mexico border and drag queens.

House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, earlier this year said state agencies should not spend taxpayer dollars on personal promotion.

Rep. Mark McBride, R-Moore, the chair of the House Appropriations and Budget education subcommittee, said the guardrails in SB 1122 were necessary to curb Walters’ spending practices. The House of Representatives approved the measure on the final day of session in a 57-35 vote. The Senate earlier approved the measure by a vote of 37-4. McBride and Walters, a fellow Republican, have clashed repeatedly since Walters took office in January 2023.

Walters and his staff opposed the limits, and claimed they would require the agency to close several support offices and even shutter its website.

In a statement, Walters called the Legislature’s attempt to curb his spending “political gamesmanship.”

Walters, in earlier videos posted to his X account and emails sent by an agency staffer and the Oklahoma Republican Party, said the spending limits were an attempt to censor him and silence Oklahoma parents. He repeated those claims on Friday.

Supporters of Walters continued to pressure Stitt’s office on SB 1122 after the Legislature ended its regular session. On May 31, Matt Oberdick, the Education Department’s director of external relations, urged people to call the governor. Days later, the Oklahoma Republican Party followed with its own email blast, directing supporters to a website — wantedryanwalters.com — created June 1 and registered in Texas.

Topped with pictures of Walters and Trump, the site read “Wanted” in red letters followed by “Most hated in the state by the LGBTQ+ radicals, unions & democrats.”

Stitt’s office received hundreds of calls about the bill, according to a spokeswoman for the governor’s office. Most callers opposed the two sections Stitt ultimately vetoed.

Vought was the only bidder for the national PR contract. She’s a political pal of Matt Langston, chief policy advisor for the Department of Education and Walters’ campaign manager. Around the same time, the department awarded a contract for videography services to Precision Outreach, a vendor that also has ties to Langston.

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Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public-policy issues facing the state.

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