Gov. Kevin Stitt talks with reporters following a Dec. 20 meeting of the state Board of Equalization. Credit: Trevor Brown / Oklahoma Watch

Gov. Kevin Stitt has some big decisions to make in 2020.  

The Republican governor is entering his second year in office with his promise from the 2018 political campaign still defining expectations for success – to make Oklahoma a “top 10” state in several critical areas.

With a year’s experience under his belt, Stitt will join the Legislature in confronting a number of old issues that have resurfaced along with continuing issues that were largely pushed to the sidelines over the past year.

Among the top matters that Stitt and lawmakers are expected to address in 2020:

An Alternative to Medicaid Expansion 

One of the biggest immediate questions is what Stitt’s vision for expanding access to health care in Oklahoma will be and whether he thinks it will significantly propel the state toward better health outcomes. Oklahoma has the second highest uninsured rate in the country.  

The governor repeatedly has voiced strong opposition to a citizen-led constitutional ballot initiative that would expand the state’s Medicaid program by extending coverage to about 200,000 low-income Oklahomans. 

Stitt said he would announce a proposal this fall as an alternative to the state question, which appears likely to be on next year’s primary or general election ballot. Fall came and went with no announcement. Stitt hasn’t revealed anything about his plan, other than to say in a recent radio interview that his administration is looking at a Medicaid model involving a federal block grant.

Speaking to reporters Dec. 20, Stitt said talks continue between his administration and federal health officials and he is getting “really, really close” to making an announcement. 

“We really started laying out our plan and getting them involved early,” he said, adding that he recently met with Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma to discuss the issue. “I’m hearing from Oklahoma people that they want more federal dollars in the system, and I’m going to have a more fiscally conservative plan on how to pay for it and how to tap some federal dollars.” 

How Much to Save and Spend  

The governor will spend a good portion of January developing a budget proposal to present to the Legislature when the session begins on Feb. 3. 

Stitt and other members of the Board of Equalization voted Dec. 20 to certify budget numbers that will give lawmakers $8.3 billion to spend next fiscal year. That is a slight increase of $9.3 million, or 0.1%, over this fiscal year’s budget.  

But that’s a far cry from the nearly $600 million surplus state officials enjoyed entering the 2019 session. The largely flat budget for fiscal 2021 means there will be little room for budget increases unless lawmakers can find new revenues. And that could create decisions as many state agencies request additional funds again.  

“We are going to have to pick and choose where we invest our resources,” Stitt said.  

The tight budget picture, shadowed by concerns that oil and gas revenues will continue to fall, could also complicate Stitt’s goal of building the state’s “rainy day” fund to $2 billion by the end of his first term. The fund currently has $806 million.

More Work on Criminal Justice? 

On the policy front, criminal justice is expected to be a top priority again for Stitt and lawmakers.  

During the 2019 session, policymakers continued the state’s multi-year push to revise and reform criminal justice policies in an effort to lower the state’s high incarceration rates. That included passing a bill that made 2018’s State Question 780 – which reduced many non-violent crimes from felonies to misdemeanors – retroactive for inmates currently serving time.  

The bill led to the early release in November of more than 500 inmates – the largest number of commutations granted in a single day in the United States. 

To the dismay of criminal justice advocates, however, several other proposals considered during the session failed, including bail reforms, broader sentencing revisions and proposals to lower court costs and fees.  

In response, Stitt signed an executive order just after the session ended creating a criminal justice task force to continue to evaluate these and other policy changes. The group was scheduled to release its recommendations in early December, but Stitt allowed an extension until Jan. 10. 

Kris Steele, a former speaker of the Oklahoma House who now heads Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, said he hopes Stitt and lawmakers act on reforming bail practices, relaxing community supervisor rules and increasing funding for mental health and addiction treatment. 

His group also is pushing a proposed ballot initiative that would change the state’s enhanced sentencing laws to prevent judges from giving longer prison sentences for people convicted of nonviolent crimes based on their previous nonviolent criminal record.

Although Steele said he had high hopes for the 2019 session, he is more encouraged about the 2020 one. 

“I am optimistic this year for several reasons, including the governor’s interest and leadership on the issue,” he said. “In addition to that, I think there is a greater awareness in the Legislature of the need to pursue these additional reforms.” 

Tribal Gaming Negotiations

The ongoing dispute between Stitt and more than 30 Oklahoma tribes over gaming compact negotiations is unfinished business that will likely advance to a new stage in 2020.

The tribes say the compacts will automatically renew at the start of the year, but the governor argues they will expire.

On Dec. 17, Stitt offered to extend the Jan. 1 deadline to give the state and tribes more time to work out a revised compact. In a joint press conference two days later, representatives from more than 30 tribes rejected Stitt’s offer and stood by their view that the compacts will renew without further action.  

Lisa Billy – who resigned Monday as the governor’s secretary of Native American affairs – said in her resignation letter that Stitt is “committed to an unnecessary conflict” and is “intent on breaking faith” with the tribes. A former six-term Republican state representative from Purcell, Billy is a member of the Chickasaw Nation. Stitt has said no contract continues in perpetuity and he is seeking a better agreement for taxpayers.

If the impasse continues, Stitt and the tribes could bring their fight to the courts to settle the issue; Stitt has warned that all Class III gaming will be illegal on Jan. 1 if there is no deal.  

“My door is open and I invite them to come talk to me – just like I’ve tried since July,” Stitt said. “This isn’t what I wanted to happen, with the tremendous uncertainty … but I’m going to protect the state’s right and our position as well.” 

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