Governor Kevin Stitt gave his third State of the State Address on Monday before a joint session of the State House and Senate for the 58th Oklahoma Legislature.
In advance of the address, Stitt’s Chief Financial Officer Amanda Rodriguez presented his proposed Fiscal Year 2022 Executive Budget.
The $8.3 billion budget calls for a conservative approach to spending as the state continues to deal with the impact of COVID-19. Stitt also wants an additional $300 million to go into the state's Revenue Stabilization Fund.
“We are committed to growing our economy, addressing critical needs across state government, and ensuring proper accountability and efficiency with Oklahomans’ hard-earned tax dollars,” the narrative of Stitt’s proposal said.
Stitt credited an early "reopening" of the state's economy and the 2019 build-up of the state's savings account for a better economic outlook than other states.
Stitt emphasized minimizing regulations in a bid to draw businesses to Oklahoma and the need to find creative ways to cut spending.
Stitt spent much of his address pushing for in-person schooling across Oklahoma amid the COVID-19 pandemic. He’s leveraging the issue to push other policy goals for the upcoming session.
Stitt’s policy wishlist includes easing transfer rules for K-12 students and changing Oklahoma’s funding formula so schools can’t rely on past years for allocations if they’ve lost students. He says both of those would have helped get students back in the classroom earlier during the pandemic.
"Being in a physical classroom is so important for most students to succeed," said Stitt. "By not giving our parents and children an option for in-person learning, schools have tied their hands."
Stitt again criticized Tulsa Public Schools for dragging its feet on in person learning, though earlier in the day, the district announced it hoped to get students back in classrooms by the end of the month. Tulsa Superintendent Deborah Gist said during that Monday press conference, political pressure had nothing to do with the decision. Instead, it’s a continuation of listening to experts.
"Throughout this experience we have followed the science, the data, the public health professionals," said Gist.
Tulsa Schools' Board of Education will ultimately make the decision on returning to in-person learning, so when exactly Tulsa students will ultimately come back to school is unclear. But, since August, more than 90 percent of Oklahoma school districts have conducted in-person learning.
The first part of Stitt's speech focused on COVID-19 and the state's response to it. He praised the work for Oklahoma's doctors, nurses and health care workers during the pandemic and celebrated the recent drop in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations. However, January was still the state's worst month of the pandemic, with 98,536 infections and 1,058 deaths due to the virus.
"The version of the last year that the governor sold to Oklahomans today was nothing more than revisionist history," said House Minority Leader Emily Virgin (D-Norman). "Let me be clear, as COVID-19 rages in Oklahoma - January was our worst month, yet - no state wishes they would have responded to this pandemic as Oklahoma has.
Stitt also celebrated the work done to make COVID tests widely available and the ongoing rollout of the vaccine. White House COVID Senior Adviser Andy Slavitt recently congratulated the state on vaccinating 10% of its population.
Stitt only spent a few lines on the move to partially privatize the state's Medicaid program. State officials announced $2.1 billion in contracts to four private health insurance companies last week.
Noting poor state ratings in obesity, diabetes and heart disease, Stitt said it's time to reimagine health care delivery. The Governor called the managed care approach "the right path forward" and points to other states like Texas, Kansas and Tennssee taking the same approach.
The plan has drawn criticism from the medical community and the Legislature. Opponents are concerned the program was designed hastily, that it will reduce health access for low-income Oklahomans instead of improving it, that the $2 billion contracts faced no legislative oversight and that Oklahoma’s past attempts to implement full managed care failed miserably.
McGirt v. Oklahoma Fallout
Stitt called on tribal leaders to work with the state on the repercussions of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma., which he referred to as "the most pressing issue for our state's future."
The Governor emphasized the need to resolve unanswered questions from the ruling. He made similar statements in his recent call for formal negotiations on the matter. Tribes have been split over the best way to move forward on the complex issue.
In response to Stitt's address, Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said any outcome must full respect and preserve tribal sovereignty.
"There is no future for Oklahoma that does not include strong tribal governments, and we hope that going forward the need for cooperative solutions that are respectful of our rights and our history," said Hoskin in a statement.
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