Kevin Stitt spent most of the past year telling voters how he could turn Oklahoma into a “Top 10 state” when it comes to education, business and other categories.
Now, after being sworn in Monday as Oklahoma’s 28th governor, the new chief executive will be tasked with carrying out his ambitious campaign pledge.
Stitt laid out the vision for how he will get to that goal to the hundreds who crowded the state Capitol’s south plaza for his inaugural address.
The speech echoed many of his talking points from the campaign: holding agencies more accountable, reducing regulations for businesses, continuing criminal justice reforms and making more progress to attract and retain the best teachers.
How Stitt plans to meet these goals won’t be known until he releases his budget proposal and gives his State of the State address when the 2019 legislative session kicks off on Feb. 4. But his inaugural address provided clues to what his priorities will be during his first year in office.
Stitt’s written address below, with some changes to reflect what was actually spoken, has been annotated by Oklahoma Watch reporters to provide context and analysis.
Thank you, Corbin.
Thank you Pro Temp Greg Treat, Speaker Charles McCall, and members of the legislature.
Thank you Lt. Governor Matt Pinnell, and congratulations to all statewide elected officials. I look forward to rolling up my sleeves and working with you on the important tasks we have ahead to make Oklahoma a Top Ten state.
Thank you Chief Justice Noma Gurich and Justices of the Supreme Court.
I want to especially thank Governor Fallin, Governor Keating, Governor Nigh, Governor Henry, Governor Walters … for being here today. Thank you so much.
And to my beautiful wife Sarah, I wouldn’t be here today without you by my side over the past 20 years. Thank you so much. I appreciate you. Her heart and compassion for people is absolutely unmatched.
And to my six children – Natalie, Drew, Kate, Piper, Remington and Houston – I love you guys; I am so proud of you.
I’d like to thank my mom and dad, my two brothers, and Sarah’s family here today.
Honored guests, friends, and my fellow Oklahomans, it is with deep gratitude and thanks to my heavenly father and with determination in my heart that I stand before you today.
You see, I’m a pretty typical Oklahoma son, like so many of you.
I moved around a little bit as a kid. I attended first grade in Wayne, Oklahoma, population 700, and then I graduated from Norman High School. I spent many summers in Skiatook helping my grandparents on their dairy farm and I spent Sundays in church listening to my dad preach.
Stitt opens with his now-familiar story. The subtext is a family man; a wife who has partnered in his successes and in the campaign; a rural boy who later helped with cows, and a preacher’s son. Wayne is south of Purcell, in McClain County.
My dad raised me and my two brothers to believe we could do anything we put our minds to. He would tell us, “Don’t ever give up… don’t ever quit… the future doesn’t just happen – you make it happen – so dream big.”
These words have echoed in my mind and through many sleepless nights over the past 20 years while building an Oklahoma company with my wife Sarah and raising our family that we love dearly.
It wasn’t easy. We took great risks as a family… we made hard decisions… we sacrificed… we weathered difficult times… and we learned from each other, from our employees, and from our community. And to my Gateway team members, thank you for being a part of our American dream.
In interviews, Stitt has not talked in detail about the serious struggles he had in growing his mortgage business, such as whether the company’s existence was threatened and why. His campaign focused instead on the firm’s ultimate success.
Two years ago, the idea of running for governor was still just a small mustard seed.
He suggests a comparison between his run for governor and Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Jesus was referring to the growth of the “Kingdom of Heaven” or “Kingdom of God” from a tiny seed to a large plant. Stitt’s speech makes various religious references.
I traveled the country visiting my offices in other states, seeing their economies take off and thrive. They were recovering from our nation’s historic recession. I would then come home to the state that I love to find us struggling, stuck at the bottom in every category that matters.
We don’t have to relive the past few years – everyone was touched by it.
But it was this environment that caused me to reach deep and ask what more can I do to make a difference, to address a pattern seen throughout our state’s history – from the ?Dust Bowl of the 1930s to the oil glut of the 1980s – where we have lived for each boom and starved in each bust.
Like you, I was frustrated. Like you, I am motivated. I see untapped potential. I see opportunity. I see great men and women around me. I see promises to be kept. I see jobs. I see progress.
I see a Top Ten Oklahoma.
Stitt’s optimistic message is one reason he won the election. He pointed to the state’s problems and the frustrations of voters of all stripes. But often his main point was, We can find answers, and I have the willpower to make that happen.
I know it is possible because I spent the past 18 months traveling the state, listening to Oklahomans in all 77 counties, holding more than 300 town halls, knocking on the doors of strangers, and learning the platform and the mandate that Oklahomans wanted for their next governor.
Here is what I heard: We know we can be, and should, be a Top Ten state. Why? Because…
We are Oklahoma, proud of our hard-working, God-fearing people.
It is because of Oklahoma’s work ethic that in Lawton one of Goodyear’s largest tire manufacturing facilities in the world is located…
That American airlines has its largest maintenance and repair facility in the world in Tulsa…
That we are the birthplace of companies like QuickTrip, HobbyLobby and Sonic.
It’s because of Oklahoma’s work ethic that our farmers and ranchers are the top five in the nation in the production of beef cattle, wheat, canola, cotton and pecans.
We are Oklahoma, proud of our rich, natural resources – from abundant water in the east to oil, natural gas, and wind energy that stretches across the west.
The oil and gas and wind industries will be closely watching to see whether the Stitt Administration makes any big moves to change how Oklahoma taxes these natural resources. During the campaign trail, Stitt said government shouldn’t “pick winners and losers” and that Oklahoma should create a level playing field for the energy industries to compete. He also repeatedly said he doesn’t want to increase taxes to find new revenue. But if lawmakers come looking for more money, wind and drilling tax rates – or tax credits and incentives – could be on the table once again.
It’s this entrepreneurial spirit and innovation with our resources that allowed Oklahoma to play a leading role in making America energy independent. In Oklahoma, we are number four in oil production, number three in natural gas production, and number two in wind energy production.
We are Oklahoma, proud of our abundant land and our central location in the United States. It’s what makes us home for a booming aerospace industry, five thriving military bases, and the largest, most inland river port in the nation with the Port of Catoosa.
It’s this pride that will allow us to move forward together: not as Republicans or Democrats, but as Oklahomans locked hand-in-hand, arm-in-arm.
Stitt calls for bipartisanship and unity, but with the number of Democrats in the House and Senate now too low to engage in any meaningful legislative action on their own, his biggest obstacle could be with his own party. Former Gov. Mary Fallin had a number of disagreements with the Legislature during her two terms in office, and a large percentage of legislators are new to public office.
And to that, we must ask, “What is it going to take to get this turnaround started?”
Are we ready to look each other in the eyes and honestly say, “We got this, we can do this together?”
But for us to be successful, I need you to join me. State government is not the answer to all of our problems.
Stitt said there is a role for state government, but it can’t be the only answer to problems and calls on people to get involved in all types of civic and religious organizations.
We must get involved in our schools, in our churches, in our neighborhoods, in our local nonprofits to diagnose and solve the unique challenges county by county, so that no one person falls through the cracks – because every life in Oklahoma is worthy of our respect and help.
And I know that working together, we will be a top ten state. And as I begin serving today as your next governor, let me tell you where Oklahoma’s turnaround starts for me.
It starts today by demanding accountability in our state government.
Stitt’s call for accountability follows last year’s controversy involving the Oklahoma Department of Health’s mismanagement of tens of millions of dollars. It also comes as legislative leaders continue to wrestle with deciding how much power the governor should have over the executive branch. In response to those concerns, Stitt says he will ask the Legislature for more power over agency boards and commissions, including the power to hire and fire agency leaders, to ensure money is spent correctly and efficiently.
In this administration, we are going to get to the bottom of every tax dollar spent.
We are going to ensure every dollar matches the values and visions of Oklahoma becoming a Top Ten state.
As in the campaign, this theme appeals to those who believe state government is bloated and inefficient. But will Stitt cut spending in key areas in pursuit of efficiency? Critics argue Oklahoma needs more, not less, spending, as an investment to improve its quality of life and lift the economy in the long run.
We will bring Oklahoma fully into the digital age and maximize our services while creating an efficient process that allows us to do it at the lowest possible cost.
We can only guarantee such accountability when state agencies understand that they exist to serve – and to answer to the people of Oklahoma.
We need to change how Oklahoma’s 400 agencies and commissions are comprised. Our current system gives agencies too much independence from the voter – they have the ability to ignore executive orders, skirt around laws passed by the legislature, hide pockets of money, and protect their own interests by hiring lobbyists.
In mentioning executive orders, he may be referring to state Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister and the State Board of Education; in 2018 they refused to comply with an executive order from Fallin seeking measures of classroom spending.
On lobbyists: Agencies that receive state funds aren’t allowed to use state money to hire lobbyists. They typically have a staffer, often called a legislative liaison, or include communicating with legislators in the duties of agency directors or communications personnel. Agencies that don’t receive state funds or receive some state funds and other funds from user fees and other sources are allowed to spend their money on lobbyists, provided it’s not done with state funds.
On hiding “pockets of money:” Stitt is likely referencing the financial mismanagement at the state Health Department, which resulted in almost 200 layoffs and the agency receiving an emergency appropriation of $30 million that was unneeded.
To my fellow Oklahomans – this must change if we are going to move the needle!
And let me speak directly to state employees working across our state agencies. We have a great opportunity and you should get excited! I need you to step forward with ways to deliver efficiencies, to modernize, to meet the needs of the Oklahoma customer, to help us become a customer-focused government. With new leadership, you will be the change agents and innovators that help us become Top Ten.
Stitt’s call for state employees to be more efficient and be “change agents” could be controversial among many state workers who want a substantial pay raise. The Legislature and Fallin gave state employees a pay bump of up to $2,000 last year, well short of demands from the Oklahoma Public Employees Association. The group is now seeking an across-the-board $5,000 salary increase, a $15-per-hour minimum wage for state workers and retirement benefit changes for the upcoming 2019 session.
And to my fellow elected officials in the House and the Senate – let’s unite around delivering this accountability. The people deserve it. And with it, state government will live within its financial means, and we will execute a top-to-bottom review, set meaningful priorities, and establish measurable goals.
And Oklahoma’s Turnaround also starts with education. You know, I am fully convinced Oklahoma can have a top ten education system. I also see the nation pointing to Oklahoma and saying, this is what is possible!
That is already true of Oklahoma’s Pre-K program and it’s already true with access to career techs statewide – a system that has been nimble and robust in helping us train the workforce of today.
Even Oklahoma’s pre-K program has been impacted by funding woes, as some schools are now exceeding the long-held class size cap of 20 students.
We have much to be proud of, and I commend the legislature for the work that they’ve done and the progress they’ve made last year. But we still have more progress to make…
It will require us to recognize that reforming and improving education should not be a partisan issue. Getting our children ready to thrive and face the challenges of the future should be our shared priority.
We’re going to break down silos between common ed, career tech, and higher ed. But more government money is not the answer alone. We need families working together with the school to help children unlock their full potential and overcome all odds.
Every child in Oklahoma deserves to be inspired by the very power of education itself and the potential of a brighter future. This is why we will value teachers and seek to recruit the very best teachers in the profession.
Stitt stops short of repeating his promise for another teacher pay raise.
In a Stitt administration, we will also work to address our ranking in incarceration. And I want to take a moment to recognize Governor Mary Fallin for starting the hard work and beginning a much-needed conversation around this issue. Thank you, Governor Fallin.
During the campaign, Stitt distanced himself from Fallin as much as possible, criticizing her for being part of the “establishment.” He didn’t seek her endorsement, although she went on to endorse himself anyway. Thus, it’s notable that he specifically praises her on criminal justice reform, which she was accused of stifling in her first term but pushing much harder in her second. Both major parties support more justice reform, but district attorneys, bail bond firms and others have pushed back on some aspects.
You know, my eyes were open to this issue while on the campaign trail a year ago in December when I met a lady named Rhonda. Rhonda runs a ministry in Claremore where she provides opportunity for women re-entering society after prison and drug addiction.
Stitt is referring to Rhonda Bear, a former drug addict who is now program director for Women in Transition. Bear was on the front row of the inauguration stage on Monday.
Rhonda told me that her own incarceration saved her life from drugs, but she is sounding the alarm for the extreme length of prison time that women today are receiving for non-violent crimes in Oklahoma.
These sentences make reintegration into society much more challenging. They often destroy families and fall short in respecting the dignity, worth and potential of people who have made mistakes and need help.
Rhonda’s ministry – and many like it across our state – are a vital component to helping Oklahoma tackle our #1 ranking of incarceration. As a state, we must do better, and we must believe in the power of second chances, of grace and redemption. It will require us to step forward together as citizens, as churches, as job creators, as a government to bring meaningful change.
Rhonda, thank you for being here today.
Finally, in all that we do, and the decisions that we make, it will come back to growth. We will ask ourselves:
-Does this new bill,
-Does this new investment,
-Does this regulation grow Oklahoma?
We are at our best when people are gainfully employed, when wages are improving, when people have freedom to innovate and access to opportunity.
Today, the nation needs to hear, the business community needs to hear, rural Oklahoma needs to hear… the manufacturing industry, aerospace, technology … in a Stitt administration, Oklahoma is open for business.
This caps the four priorities described in his speech. In order: accountability, education improvement, criminal justice reform, economic growth.
We will help our local businesses expand. We will recruit. We will train and supply the modern-day workforce. And we will bring Oklahoma to the world and we’re going to bring the world to Oklahoma.
Friends, we are either moving forward or we are falling behind. And I believe we have more opportunity today than any day in our history to start a business, to expand an existing one … to move our state forward.
This may seem too bold for some. Big goals can often feel unattainable, but don’t say that to a guy who was told it was impossible to build a nationwide mortgage company with $1,000 and a computer, and don’t tell that to a guy who was told a political outsider couldn’t become governor.
As we close our time together, here is my commitment to you: You the people come first. I commit to you to be a good listener, a continuous learner, and a committed communicator, and a bold leader for the decisions that make a difference for today’s children and the next generation.
Those who met Stitt last year have remarked on his tendency to ask a lot of questions, probing to understand how state government works and what problems and options exist.
I’m humbled by the trust you placed in me to serve as your next governor, and I thank you for your prayers, for your support and your encouragement. Thank you for your commitment to making Oklahoma a great place to live, work, and raise a family.
Let’s get this done together folks, because Oklahoma’s turnaround starts right here, right now.