Gov. Kevin Stitt finds himself in much different times than when he took office just over two years ago.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has loomed large over much of Stitt’s first term, unemployment is down, the state’s budget picture is shakier — but not quite as bad as some feared — and much work remains to be done to curb the virus that has already killed more than 3,420 Oklahomans in the last 9 months.
After two years in office, Stitt has also found himself on the winning and losing end of several policy battles, while much of Stitt’s ambitious political and economic agenda remains unfinished.
On Monday, Stitt will kick off the unofficial halfway point of his first term when he delivers his third State of the State address.
As the governor prepares to set his vision for his next two years, here are 11 days from his first term that helps define the governor’s tenure at his halfway point.
Feb. 4, 2019: Term Begins With Lofty Goals
Stitt mentioned making Oklahoma a “top ten” state seven times during his first State of the State address.
What began as a campaign slogan, Stitt’s goal of making Oklahoma rank among the best states in a range of categories spanning education to health care would become a constant drum-beat of his administration’s messaging for his first two years in office.
Although the governor has celebrated cracking the top ten in a number of categories, including in bridge conditions (something that sparked some mockery online) and the ability to attract manufacturing firms, Oklahoma has much work to do in several others.
The Stitt administration is using social media to aggressively push to immediately open schools that that are not.
A series of metrics that the governor’s office released last year to provide “Oklahomans with an overview of the progress being made” highlights the work left to finish.
According to the latest data on the Governor’s Dashboard of Metrics, Oklahoma remains outside of the top ten of 14 of the 18 categories that include state rankings.
And the state’s data shows that Oklahoma remains in the bottom ten in several categories including, real gross domestic product growth, per capita personal income, child obesity and incarceration rates.
May 28, 2019: A ‘Honeymoon’ Legislative Session
Stitt’s first legislative session in 2019 went by smoothly compared to some of the last few years under his predecessor when lawmakers and Gov. Mary Fallin’s office struggled to find common ground on ways to bridge budget shortfalls and other issues.
With a budget surplus heading into the session, most of the governor’s budget and legislative goals passed with little resistance.
Stitt and the GOP-controlled Legislature announced a budget deal, which included a new teacher pay raise, $19 million for the governor’s business recruitment fund and no new taxes, well before the sine die deadline.
The governor also won another of his campaign promises: to gain powers to hire and fire the leaders of several state agencies, including the Oklahoma Health Care Authority and the Department of Corrections.
Stitt sought to overhaul more of the state’s agencies the next year, calling for merging the Oklahoma Department of Transportation and the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority as well as the Oklahoma Department of Corrections and the Pardon and Parole Board.
Those proposals were sidelined after the 2020 session was paused, and eventually shortened, amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
Dec. 31, 2019: Tribes Sue Over Gaming Compacts
With his first legislative session over, Stitt turned his attention to another of his year-one goals: to renegotiate the state’s gaming compact with dozens of tribes that pay the state about $140 million annually for exclusivity rights to run casino games.
Stitt believed tribes needed to renegotiate the contract by the end of 2019 or risk losing the ability to run the casinos. But tribal leaders argued their reading of the law showed that the compact would be automatically renewed if no changes were agreed upon at the end of the year.
The impasse stretched throughout the year, culminating on Dec. 31 when, absent a deal, the tribes continued to run their casinos and sued the governor over the issue.
The dispute would follow Stitt through the next year as he suffered legal loss after loss, including a lawsuit by top GOP state lawmakers who argued the governor was overstepping his authority without gaining legislative approval.
In the latest blow to Stitt’s efforts, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled on Jan. 26 that the governor overstepped his authority in approving gaming compacts with two of the smaller tribes.
March 14, 2020: As COVID Cases Rise, Viral Tweet Draw Attention
On March 7, 2020, Oklahoma reported its first case of COVID-19 within its borders. Eleven days later the state reported its first death.
Although Stitt would go on to issue an emergency declaration later that month that would order vulnerable populations to stay at home and essential businesses to temporarily close, Stitt’s early COVID-19 messaging ran counter to what public health leaders were stressing even during those early weeks and months.
And a day before declaring a state of emergency, Stitt made national, and even international, headlines in mid-April when he tweeted a picture with his family, none of whom were wearing masks, at a crowded Oklahoma City restaurant just as cases were beginning to surge in the state.
“Eating with my kids and all my fellow Oklahomans at the @CollectiveOKC. It’s packed tonight!” Stitt tweeted.
“I was extremely disappointed to see how many were so quick to judge her without taking time to personally speak to her.”
Even though Stitt deleted the tweet, his office said days later that Oklahomans should still use good sense and that Stitt’s family would continue to go to restaurants and grocery stores “without living in fear.”
As the number of confirmed cases, hospitalizations and deaths ramped up, Stitt became more vocal in recommending that Oklahomans follow COVID-19 protocols, including wearing masks and following social distance protocols.
But the episode would exemplify the question Stitt would grapple with over the coming months: Can you re-open the economy during the pandemic while still keeping the population safe?
May 22, 2020: Legislature, Stitt at Odds as Lawmakers Override Vetoes
Unlike in 2019, Stitt and lawmakers didn’t see eye to eye on the budget or several other contentions issues during the 2020 legislative session.
Stitt lashed out at Republican leaders who he said crafted the state’s annual budget “behind closed doors” and “without meaningful input” from the executive branch. He specifically said lawmakers’ use of one-time funds to fill a budget shortfall didn’t “reflect the values of Oklahomans” and placed the state in a bad situation for future years.
Stitt vetoed the budget bill, along with 18 other bills, and asked lawmakers to reconsider the move. But the Republican-dominated House and Senate instead voted to override the governor’s veto on the budget and other legislation
Stitt’s disputes with the Legislature, particularly with his fellow Republicans, wouldn’t end there. Stitt has found himself feuding with them on the managed-care debate, his plan to move the state’s public health lab to Stillwater and how much authority he has to negotiate tribal gaming compacts.
June 20, 2020: President Trump Comes to Tulsa
With little warning, Oklahoma became the center of the political universe early last summer.
After months of sidelining his signature campaign rallies due to the COVID-19 spread, Trump announced his first in-person campaign event since the country’s first case was reported would be held in Tulsa.
At the time, reported cases were continuing to increase at a steady pace across the nation, but particularly so in Tulsa. Despite this, Trump’s campaign won Stitt’s blessing, along with Tulsa Mayor G. T. Bynum, to bring the rally to the state’s second most populous city.
On Stitt’s advice, Trump’s campaign moved the date a day back so it wouldn’t coincide with Juneteenth after black leaders protested that it was inappropriate for Trump, who has been accused of fanning racial flames, to be speaking on the holiday and not too far from the site of the 1921 race massacre.
Only three of five commissioners were present Tuesday for a special meeting to approve Elliot Chambers as head of the state office that manages $2.3 billion in oil and gas leases.
The campaign event, however, was anything but a success. After his campaign boasted about expecting more than 100,000 attendees, the final count was far smaller.
There was a human cost as well.
Oklahoma health officials later acknowledged that the rally was “likely” the source of a surge of cases in the weeks that followed.
Herman Cain, a former presidential candidate and backer of Trump who attended the rally without wearing a mask, also tested positive shortly after the event. He died weeks later.
June 30, 2020: Voters Approve Medicaid Expansion Against Stitt’s Wishes
Though he wasn’t on the ballot for Oklahoma’s June 30 primary races, Stitt suffered a major setback after voters narrowly approved a state question to expand the state’s Medicaid program and extend health coverage to an estimated 215,000 low-income adults.
Stitt campaigned vigorously against the ballot measure as he argued it stuck the state with high and unpredictable costs for years to come.
The vote, however, came shortly after Stitt ended up pulling his own Medicaid expansion plan, which would’ve sought a federal waiver to move to a block-grant model, add work requirements and require many enrollees to pay up to $120 in premiums per year.
Lawmakers backed Stitt’s proposal during the 2020 session after they passed a pair of bills that would have increased hospital provider fees and used savings to pay for the projected $164 million in the state’s share of the costs.
Stitt, however, vetoed the funding proposal — even though he earlier proposed the key funding measure of increasing the fee hospitals pay — and dashed hopes for an expansion in 2020
The battle over the future of the state’s Medicaid program – one of the costliest parts of the state’s budget – wouldn’t end there.
Stitt now is on a mission to privatize Medicaid by moving to a managed-care model that seeks to keep costs down. The plan has faced pushback from lawmakers in both parties and prompted more than a dozen GOP lawmakers to sign onto a letter opposing the move
July 9, 2020: McGirt Decision Further Complicates Relationship With Tribes
The U.S. Supreme Court added a wrinkle to Stitt’s complicated relationship with tribal leaders when it ruled in July that much of eastern Oklahoma has been, contrary to the state’s long-standing belief, part of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation reservation.
The McGirt V. Oklahoma ruling clarified that the tribal lands, covering millions of square acres including Tulsa and the surrounding area, were never officially dissolved when Oklahoma achieved statehood.
The decision opened a series of legal questions, including whether the state, federal government or tribes have jurisdiction over crimes on tribal lands.
Stitt recently announced he wants to formally open up “to address and resolve the potential issues that have arisen because of the watershed McGirt ruling.” But, similar to the ongoing battle over gaming compacts, some tribal leaders question whether Stitt has authority to negotiate without an act of Congress.
July 15, 2020: Becomes First Governor to Test Positive for COVID
Stitt became a national news story again when he announced he was the first governor to test positive for COVID-19.
After experiencing what he called mild symptoms, Stitt recovered and returned to work 12 days later.
Stitt said the personal experience served as a reminder to all Oklahomans to “minimizing the presence of COVID-19 in Oklahoma.” But the episode didn’t change Stitt’s mind on ordering a statewide mask mandate.
Since the start of the pandemic, Stitt has resisted the move that many other governors, including Republicans, have made. Although Oklahoma routinely ranked among the hardest hit states for much of the pandemic, Stitt has been steadfast in his belief that a statewide mask mandate would be hard to enforce and it should be a decision left to local leaders.
July 21, 2020: Loses Bid to Bring Tesla to Tulsa
Stitt appeared to be on the verge of scoring a major political win and an economic victory for the state when he tried to entice Tesla CEO Elon Musk to build the company’s new Cybertruck factory.
Stitt heavily recruited Musk, including hosting an in-person visit with the multi-billionaire.
But Musk ended up taking his new factory, along with 5,000 well-paying jobs, to Texas instead.
Despite losing out, Stitt said just being a finalist, “showed the nation and the world that our state is worthy” of attracting a company like Tesla.
Dec. 15, 2020: Stitt Moves Teachers Up On Vaccine List
As part of his ongoing efforts to ensure Oklahoma’s public schools are allowing in-person learning, Stitt announced teachers and support staff will receive the COVID-19 vaccine earlier than the state first planned.
Weeks later, Stitt would later follow up this action by changing the state’s quarantine policies to allow students to remain in the classroom even if they had been exposed to COVID-19 in schools, as long as they were following safety protocols.
The policy was criticized by educators, House Democrats, superintendents in Tulsa and Oklahoma City, and the Oklahoma chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which said Stitt misconstrued an AAP study to make his case for opening classrooms.
The administration’s aggressive push to immediately open schools that have paused in-person learning comes as Oklahoma has ranked as one of the worst for coronavirus spread based on test positivity rates and hospital admissions through much of late December and the start of 2021.
That has caused friction with school leaders who say they only want to reopen when it is safe to do so. That debate is one of many that is sure to drag into the second half of Stitt’s term.
Trevor Brown has been an Oklahoma Watch reporter since 2016. He covers politics, elections, health policies and government accountability issues. Call or text him at (630) 301-0589. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @tbrownokc
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