Gov. Stitt strikes more cooperative tone in annual address

Sen. Bill Coleman

The 58th Legislature is in session. I’d like to go over Gov. Kevin Stitt’s State of the State address.

He praised the Legislature for our work on the FY’21 budget approved last session. With the historic pandemic, crafting a balanced budget was extremely difficult. While we were authorized to spend significantly more, we realized that the economy could change drastically as unemployment increased and businesses shut down, so we chose to approve a smaller and fiscally responsible $7.7 billion budget.

I appreciate Gov. Stitt acknowledging our hard work and extending an olive branch to us. As you’ll remember, he didn’t like our budget last year and vetoed it, which we in turn overrode. The tone of his address was completely different than in the past. The legislative and executive branches are equal branches under our constitution. One doesn’t rule over the other, and we must work together for the betterment of our great state. Coming from the private sector, this is an area that he has struggled with, but he’s learning that cooperation is always best in the long run.

The governor's budget proposal this year has a three-point approach. His focus remains on making Oklahoma a top 10 state for business, delivering taxpayers more for their money and investing in our fellow Oklahomans. He emphasized that we need more taxpayers, not more taxes — and I completely agree with this sentiment. More companies are looking to relocate to Oklahoma than ever before, and we’ve seen a huge increase in the number of businesses coming to our state because of our business-friendly climate. While the governor was and still is criticized for reopening our economy, Oklahoma is months ahead of other states in our recovery, and I support his choice to keep Oklahoma open for business.

To be a top 10 business state, Stitt noted we must have a strong education system and skilled workforce. He wants to look at redoing the state school funding formula and wants all public schools to return to in-person learning or allow parents to move their kids to another district. He also mentioned the importance of having a good transportation infrastructure that better connects communities to attract businesses and help those already here.

Finally, he noted that businesses must be able to grow without fear of government overreach, and we must continue focusing on cutting unnecessary red tape and eliminate excessive regulation. As a small-business owner, myself, I can’t agree more.

The second part of Gov. Stitt's proposal is helping Oklahomans get more for their money. He’s encouraging agencies to be more innovative with their budgets and figure out how to do more with less — saving taxpayer dollars. DHS closed 25 offices last year, moving their staff to more than 100 community spaces and allowing telework. This improved access and provided more services while decreasing expenses related to their former real estate.

Stitt also wants to modify hiring practices for state employees and how they’re rewarded and promoted, moving to a system that mirrors private sector practices. He pointed out that in private business, employees are promoted based on their experience, capability, and work ethic, while state agencies are restricted with promotion being based on seniority rather than other qualities

 As an example, he mentioned an OESC employee, Cody, who has worked for the unemployment agency for 22 years in the Idabel office. Since he doesn’t live in Oklahoma City, the agency policy previously wouldn’t allow him to be promoted to director. That changed when teleworking was introduced. I can attest to Cody’s talent, hard work and dedication to the state. He was a huge help to so many Oklahomans in desperate need of unemployment assistance, including many in our district. I’m pleased that he has finally received the promotion he rightly deserved and hope more outstanding state employees receive the same.

Lastly, the governor wants to invest more in Oklahomans, specifically their health. Managed health care for Medicaid recipients is a hot topic at the Capitol. Following voter approval of Medicaid expansion last summer to an estimated additional 200,000 Oklahomans, the state’s additional cost will be somewhere around $165 million to $247 million annually. Stitt believes managed care is the answer, but the jury is still out as far as I’m concerned. Opinions are split on utilizing this controversial system.

You can contact me by calling (405) 521-5581 or emailing Bill.Coleman@oksenate.gov.