Gov. Kevin Stitt outlined plans to cut taxes, promote school choice and push a conservative legislative agenda during his fourth State of the State address Monday.

Stitt, entering a re-election year, used his annual speech to paint a divide between Oklahoma and “blue states” and the federal government.

During his 43-minute speech, Stitt criticized COVID-19 lockdowns — while making no other mention of the pandemic that has killed more than 13,500 Oklahomans — the federal government’s “spending spree” and the U.S. Supreme Court’s McGirt decision.

The first-term governor also laid out the framework of his goals for the 2022 session, including calls to eliminate the state’s sales tax on groceries, revisit the state’s citizen-led initiative petition laws and using financial incentives to lure companies to Oklahoma.

Oklahoma Watch staff annotated portions (see shaded sections) of Stitt’s written speech to dive deeper into what he said and didn’t say.

Gov. Kevin Stitt’s State of the State Address

Mr. President Pro Tem.

Lieutenant Governor Matt Pinnell.

Members of my cabinet.

Mr. Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Mr. Presiding Judge of the Court of Criminal Appeals.

Members of the 58th Legislature.

Tribal leaders.

My wonderful wife and partner, First Lady Sarah Stitt.

Thank you so much to my family for being here today. It means a lot.

And most importantly, my fellow Oklahomans. I’m honored to stand before you today and begin my fourth year as your governor. It has been a great privilege to lead our state. I am thankful to the citizens of Oklahoma and my heavenly Father for giving me this opportunity.

Touting Successes

Mr. Speaker, Mr. Pro Tem, members of the House and Senate, last year, we showed Oklahomans what’s possible when we work together.

We cut taxes for all Oklahomans.

We made record investments in education and gave parents more choices.

$3.16 billion was appropriated for the state Department of Education last year, and Stitt has proposed to keep that flat for the fiscal year 2023.

Jennifer Palmer | Education Reporter

We grew our economy.

We modernized our government, and we stood up to defend the rights of Oklahomans — including protecting the lives of our unborn children.

Republicans currently hold just more than 80% of the state House and Senate seats. With that supermajority, one of the bills GOP lawmakers passed last year was a measure that put $10 million in the attorney general’s office to fight so-called federal overreach. 

Trevor Brown | Democracy Reporter

Today, I am proud to say we are well-positioned to continue our momentum toward becoming a Top Ten state.

Stitt’s goal to make Oklahoma a “Top Ten” state has been a consistent rallying call since he launched his gubernatorial campaign in 2018. He continued that Monday with 11 references to his “top ten” goal.

According to the latest data on the Governor’s Dashboard of Metrics, Oklahoma ranks in the top 10 in just five (offender recidivism, unemployment rate, state reserves, structurally deficient bridges and energy affordability) of the 22 nationally-comparable metrics the state uses. 

Trevor Brown | Democracy Reporter

I want to praise my colleagues in the Legislature for being fiscally conservative and responsible with taxpayer dollars. In the face of criticism, we stayed the course. We made smart decisions instead of going on a spending spree.It’s a different story in Washington, D.C., and so are the results.

What Stitt doesn’t mention is that Oklahoma is set to be a big beneficiary of that Washington, D.C. “spending spree.” 

Last year, the voter-approved Medicaid expansion plan was able to take effect without using any additional state dollars. That’s partly because the American Rescue Plan Act provided the state with a half-billion-dollar windfall

Federal relief funds will also send about $1.9 billion in direct funds to the state along with several hundred million more going out to cities, counties and smaller communities. 

Trevor Brown | Democracy Reporter

The Red State, Blue State Divide

Our national economy is struggling. Inflation is at a 40-year high. Gas and groceries are more expensive. Supply chain issues have made everything harder to find.

But if you live in Oklahoma, it’s a different story. While other states are shutting down their economies, we’ve never been more open for business.

In fact, 40,000 more Oklahomans have jobs today compared to when I took office. As unemployment skyrocketed in some parts of the country, ours is down to just 2.3%. That’s the lowest it’s been in our state’s history.

When Stitt took office in January 2019, there were 1,778,982 employed Oklahomans. As of December 2021, there were 1,819,134. That’s a difference of 40,152 people with jobs, for an increase of 2.25%.

It’s true, an unemployment rate of 2.3% is the lowest in state history. The labor participation rate has decreased slightly though, which means that while more people are getting hired there are also some who have stopped looking for jobs and applying for unemployment altogether. This is an improvement from where the state was last June when numbers approached pre-pandemic levels, but people were leaving the service industry for other jobs. 

Lionel Ramos | Race & Equity Reporter

Across the country, huge numbers of Americans are moving to states that value freedom and trust their citizens to make choices for themselves.

There has never been a bigger difference between a red state and a blue state.

Freedom-loving Americans cannot escape liberal lockdown states fast enough.

Over his 44-minute speech, Stitt didn’t mention either coronavirus or COVID-19. Instead, he made oblique references to “liberal lockdown” states that had more coronavirus restrictions than Oklahoma, like mask mandates or limits on indoor public events or bars or restaurants. Last year, the governor honored the Oklahomans who had died from the virus, which at that time was about 7,200 residents. As of this year’s state-of-the-state, that death toll has grown to more than 13,500 Oklahomans. 

Paul Monies | Investigative Reporter

Since April 2020, more than 27,000 of them have moved to Oklahoma.

That includes Jonathan and Erica, who moved here from Seattle because they believe in freedom and personal responsibility.

Can you imagine leaving a place like Norman, Oklahoma for Southern California? I mean, who would do that?

For those not following the Lincoln Riley saga over the last year, this was a jab at the University of Oklahoma football coach’s controversial decision to leave Norman for the head coaching job at the University of Southern California. 

Hard to tell though if the joke landed, especially on a day when temperatures are a good 20-plus degrees warmer in Los Angeles than Norman. 

Trevor Brown | Democracy Reporter

Challenging the McGirt Ruling

First Lady Sarah Stitt comforts Pamela Lord whose son, Billy, was killed by a drunk driver while riding his bike in Wagoner in 2013. Gov. Kevin Stitt recognized Lord during his State of the State address on Feb. 7, 2022. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

Oklahoma, I’m proud of the progress we’ve made in just three short years.

But today, the state of our state is at a crossroads.

We have a choice between two paths.

One path leads toward a Top Ten State.

It’s a familiar road, and it’s paved with unity, fairness, and equal protection under the law.

The other path leads to a jigsaw puzzle of jurisdiction.

From the beginning, I’ve sounded the alarm on the Supreme Court’s McGirt decision. Because I knew then, and I know now, that even a narrow Supreme Court ruling can fundamentally change a state.

Oklahoma has been robbed of the authority to prosecute crimes. Put simply, McGirt jeopardizes justice.

Over the past year, we’ve done everything we can to protect law and order and limit the impacts of this decision.

Our broad coalition includes Attorney General John O’Connor; all 27 district attorneys across the state, especially Steve Kunzweiler in Tulsa County and Matt Ballard in Craig, Mayes and Rogers Counties; Police Chiefs like Wendell Franklin in Tulsa, the Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association; the Oklahoma Farm Bureau; the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association; environmentalists; The Petroleum Alliance of Oklahoma, and city leaders.

Recently, we’ve won two major victories to protect law and order.

First, the Supreme Court agreed McGirt is not retroactive. This means that convicted criminals stay in prison.

The Supreme Court also agreed to hear another case. A win in that case would let the state go back to enforcing law and order and protecting more crime victims in Eastern Oklahoma. That’s the way we’ve done it since 1907.

The new rules put the federal government in charge, and it isn’t working.

In 2013, a 12-year-old boy named Billy Lord was riding his bike in Wagoner. Richard Roth was driving drunk and hit Billy and killed him. The state convicted Roth for Billy’s death and sentenced him to prison.

But Mr. Roth is white, and since Billy was Cherokee, the guilty verdict was overturned. The case can’t be retried in federal court, and Roth could go free from punishment without even so much as a traffic ticket on his record.

While the state can no longer prosecute certain cases in light of McGirt, tribal courts and federal courts can. Most people released from prison in light of the Supreme Court ruling were retried in federal or tribal court

If a non-tribal citizen commits a crime against an enrolled tribal citizen, the federal government has exclusive jurisdiction. The statute of limitations for a federal crime is generally five years, but there are some exceptions, including for crimes like murder. The Supreme Court has also ruled that McGirt is not retroactive, meaning the ruling can’t be applied to any cases finalized before it was enacted. Roth’s case is set to be reviewed in March.

Rebecca Najera | Race & Equity Reporter

That’s not fair. And it’s not equal protection under the law. Billy’s mom, Pamela, is here today.

She told the court that while her son was a tribal member, he was also a citizen of the United States and the state of Oklahoma. She said allowing the man who killed her son to walk free is an insult to Billy’s memory and an insult to justice.

Pamela, I’m sorry for your loss. I’m fighting for justice for Billy.

Surely, we can all agree that no crime should go unpunished. Billy deserves justice. All victims deserve justice.

Oklahoma, here’s the deal.

This isn’t about winning and losing. This isn’t personal. It’s not Kevin Stitt versus the tribes. Instead, it’s about certainty. It’s about law and order. It’s about fairness, equal protection under the law, and one set of rules.

We’re all Oklahomans. Let’s work together to solve this.

2022 Session Plans

With that, let me turn to our legislative agenda for this session. We start this year with an incredible opportunity. Oklahomans have elected the largest supermajority in state history. We have a very clear mandate to enact strong conservative policies that protect liberty and defend against the Biden administration’s federal overreach.

Republicans currently hold just more than 80% of the state House and Senate seats. With that supermajority, one of the bills GOP lawmakers passed last year was a measure that put $10 million in the attorney general’s office to fight so-called federal overreach. 

Trevor Brown | Democracy Reporter

I challenge each of us to be bold. Let’s capitalize on the opportunity we have and make Oklahoma a Top Ten state.

To reach our destination, we need a map to stay on course. Our road to Top Ten has four checkpoints:

Reforming Education

Gov. Kevin Stitt smiles after making a joke about former University of Oklahoma football coach Lincoln Riley leaving Norman for Southern California during his fourth State of the State address at the Capitol on Feb. 7, 2022. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

Driving hope for all Oklahomans, protecting Oklahomans and our way of life, making Oklahoma the most business-friendly state in the country and delivering taxpayers more for their money.

Let’s start with driving hope for all Oklahomans. Hope is not a wish or a feeling. It’s a proven science that can be measured and applied. More than 2,000 studies have shown that hope is the greatest predictor of success.

That applies to education, work, health, mental health, social relationships, family and trauma recovery. Hope impacts everything that matters to us.

I want to take a moment to recognize the First Lady, my wife, Sarah Stitt. She’s created the Sarah Stitt Hope Foundation to bring the science of hope to communities across Oklahoma. Over the next two years, we’re training every state employee how to apply the science of hope to their agencies. Sarah, thank you so much for your hard work.

We can drive hope for all Oklahomans through education. Throughout my time as governor, I’ve committed to putting our students first.

Across the country, parents are waking up to the learning loss caused by closed classrooms. They’re demanding better for their kids. I’m proud that Secretary of Education Ryan Walters and I have been fighting to put our students first and keep our schools open longer than anyone in the country.

In Oklahoma, we listen to parents, because we know God gave kids to parents — not the government.

We expanded the equal opportunity scholarship to provide more choices for low and middle income families.

That helps students like Jonathan Wright. He’s a freshman at Oklahoma Bible Academy in Enid. When Jonathan was three years old, he was adopted out of foster care by a single mom named Lisa. Jonathan has used the Equal Opportunity Scholarship to go to Oklahoma Bible for four years.

His mom said the mentors and positive role models at his school have transformed his life. Jonathan and Lisa are here today. Would you please stand and be recognized?

A family of four earning up to $147,075 qualifies for private school scholarships under the Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Act, which was expanded last year. 

Jennifer Palmer | Education Reporter

We provided record funding for all public schools, including charter and rural schools. These initial investments were good first steps for Oklahoma’s education turnaround, but there’s much more to do.

Just 15% of Oklahoma high school graduates are ready for college in English, math, reading and science — less than one out of five.

We can do better than 47th in the nation when it comes to our kids. We’ve tiptoed around the edges for far too long. It’s clear the status quo isn’t working.

When he spoke of Oklahoma high school graduates, the governor is referring to a report by ACT that found 15% of Oklahoma’s graduating class of 2019 met all four ACT College Readiness Benchmarks. 

On the No. 47 ranking, he’s referring to the “chance for success” category on the 2021 Quality Counts report card by Education Week’s Research Center. Scores are based on student proficiency and high school graduation rates, adult employment and educational attainment, and more. Oklahoma’s overall ranking on the report card was 49th.   

Jennifer Palmer | Education Reporter

We need to take bold steps. It will take courage, and it will take a desire to make a generational impact. This is our moment.

We know education is not one-size-fits-all, and I pledge to support any legislation that gives parents more school choice, because in Oklahoma, we need to fund students, not systems.

The phrase “fund students, not systems” is used by groups like Yes. every kid., a social welfare organization started by billionaire Charles Koch and Every Kid Counts Oklahoma, whose executive director is Ryan Walters, secretary of education and a candidate for state superintendent. 

Jennifer Palmer | Education Reporter

Pro Tem (Greg) Treat (R-Oklahoma City) filed a bill called the Oklahoma Empowerment Act. It makes sure that money follows the student, and it would make us a national leader in school choice.

This story looked at some of the reasons public education advocates are keeping a close eye on the bill, Senate Bill 1647

Jennifer Palmer | Education Reporter

Let me be clear: Oklahoma has a lot of great schools, but the results don’t lie. We need new ideas, more options, and higher standards for our kids. This is just common sense.

We have a duty to make sure nothing stands in the way of an Oklahoma student achieving their full potential.

There are roadblocks — literally. State law creates artificial barriers for school districts that don’t put our students first.

Our school transportation formula is outdated and broken. We desperately need to modernize it.

Another roadblock in our current system keeps some of the best teachers out of the classroom. Right now, some talented teachers choose to leave the classroom to make more money as an administrator.

Oklahoma students can’t be the best without the best teachers. That’s why I’m proposing matching funds so that our best teachers can make six figure salaries and stay in the classroom. It’s the right thing to do for our teachers and for our kids.

Another way to support Oklahoma educators is to protect their paychecks from union bosses. The same unions that have pushed critical race theory and school closures intimidate new teachers into handing over part of their salaries.

Liberal unions want to keep a stranglehold on their cut of teacher pay. Enough is enough.

Every other profession lets you opt-in to health insurance and other benefits at work every year. Unions should be opt-in, not opt-out.

The Oklahoma Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s member organization, is already opt-in. Dues run about $43 a month. 

Jennifer Palmer | Education Reporter

Challenging Marijuana Laws, Initiative Petitions

The second checkpoint on our road to Top Ten is protecting Oklahomans and our way of life. As elected officials, this is one of our most important duties.

We can’t do that if we don’t focus on securing fairness and safety in the medical marijuana industry.

To the citizens of rural Oklahoma, I hear you. This is causing major problems in our communities, and we must get it under control.

When Oklahomans voted for medical marijuana, they were sold a bill of goods. The state question was misleading, and it has tied our hands as we regulate the industry.

Oklahomans passed State Question 788 with almost 57% of the vote in June 2018. The state question by design was aggressive in its implementation schedule, but the details that were put in place by the Legislature (and signed by Stitt) in 2019 put much of the regulatory requirements in place. The lack of required medical conditions to qualify for a medical marijuana patient card and the low license amounts were touted at the time as hewing to the “hands-off” nature of what Oklahomans wanted from their government.

Almost three years later, enforcement seems to be Stitt’s focus for the medical marijuana industry. It’s worth noting that a system to track marijuana from “seed-to-sale” has been tied up in court and hasn’t been implemented yet.

Paul Monies | Investigative Reporter

Because of that state question, Oklahoma charges just $2,500 for a commercial license. Even California charges up to $181,000 — 72 times more. As a result, we have seven times the growers than California with just 10% of the people.

Next door in Arkansas, they have 8 growers. We have 8,300.

You know as well as I do that not all of that product is being sold legally. This is a perfect example why we need to make sure initiative petitions represent Oklahomans, not out-of-state special interest groups. Oklahomans deserve to know the details before voting to change our constitution.

SQ 788 for medical marijuana is an odd initiative petition to blame on “out-of-state interests.” The state question enjoyed broad political support, including from Republicans, Democrats and Libertarians. There’s no evidence that it was funded by out-of-state interests. SQ 788 did worse in many rural western counties of the state, which has led to some proposed legislation to allow counties to approve new licenses.  

Paul Monies | Investigative Reporter

While we can’t change the past, we can learn from it and improve our future. We are getting the right leaders in place and untying their hands to enforce the laws.

I’ve directed our law enforcement to crack down hard on the black market. Agents have been in the field making arrests. Let me be clear: drug cartels, organized crime and foreign bad actors have no place in Oklahoma. We will find them, and we will bring them to justice.

Several large raids of illegal marijuana have made the news in recent months, including seizures in Garvin County and near Pauls Valley. A paralegal for a Tulsa attorney, meanwhile, has been accused of signing paperwork for thousands of licenses for out-of-state owners. Last year, lawmakers passed a bill allowing the Bureau of Narcotics and the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority to hire more agents and inspectors. 

Paul Monies | Investigative Reporter

Policing and Mental Health

Oklahoma is a proud law and order state. As other states and cities are still defunding their police, we have a chance to stand apart. Brave men and women who put their lives on the line deserve leaders who will have their back.

More than a dozen major U.S. cities, including New York City, Los Angeles and Austin, cut their police budgets in 2020 amid widespread protests against police brutality and systemic racism. However, several of these cities restored or increased police funding in 2021, citing increases in violent crime. 

Keaton Ross | Criminal Justice Reporter

Now is the time to transform and modernize our state law enforcement system into the nation’s best. To do this, we need to tackle four critical areas: the recruitment, retention, health and training of our troopers, agents and investigators.

First, we must protect our officers. Mental health does not discriminate. Depression and suicide do not discriminate.

Stitt is referring to police here, but the suicide rate for all Oklahomans climbed during the pandemic. Suicide rates were highest in rural areas, where access to mental health care is limited. 

Jennifer Palmer | Education Reporter

It’s long overdue, but this year we must prioritize the health of our officers and create the Oklahoma First Responders Wellness Division. Its foundation is a peer to peer system designed to recognize the early signs of trauma and give immediate help to officers who need it.

This could have saved Ronald Hook. The continued trauma he experienced as an officer seemingly went unnoticed and unaddressed.

After 15 years of dedicated service in law enforcement, this family man, husband, father and friend, tragically ended his life.

Ron’s daughter Alisha, and his sisters, Sissy and Suzy, are here today. They support creating this wellness division so other officers and their families won’t experience the same tragedy. Alisha, Sissy and Suzy, I am so sorry for the loss of your dad and brother. Thank you for being here.

The daughter and sisters of former law enforcement officer Ronald Hook, who died by suicide, were recognized during Gov. Stitt’s State of the State address at the Capitol on Feb. 7, 2022. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

In the same way we can attract and support teachers, we need to provide law enforcement officers competitive pay, the best training available, and more career options.

I’m requesting that we pool our resources and build a joint statewide training facility. Officers put their lives on the line every single day. The least we could do in return is provide them with the highest quality training.

Our state’s law enforcement also desperately needs a consolidated, unified command structure within a single department. Forty-three other states have this. Oklahoma should be no different.

A unified command will create the career growth opportunities that today’s recruits expect.

I want to pause here and thank each one of our brave men and women in law enforcement who sacrifice each day to keep our communities safe. Other states may turn their backs on the blue, but as governor, I will always stand with those who protect and hold that thin blue line.

Luring Businesses to Oklahoma

Our third Top Ten checkpoint is making Oklahoma the most business-friendly state in the nation.

Last year’s pro-business policies are already paying dividends. Canoo, an electric vehicle manufacturer, is a perfect example. Last summer, Canoo announced it will open a factory in Pryor next year and bring 2,000 jobs to Oklahoma. Canoo’s CEO, Tony Aquila, said he chose Oklahoma because he wants to be where the puck is going — not where it’s been.

Since Canoo’s initial announcement, it’s added a technology hub, software development customer support and financing centers to Oklahoma. That’s at least 700 more high-paying jobs for our state.

In 2020, Stitt and other state officials tried to lure Tesla CEO Elon Musk to build the company’s new Cybertruck factory in Tulsa. 

That effort fell short after Tesla picked Texas instead. But as a sort of consolation prize, Stitt announced last year that Canoo, an electric vehicle start-up based in California, would build one of its factories in Pryor. 

The deal comes with a cost for Oklahoma though with a reported $300 million incentive package being used to lure the company to the state. The company, meanwhile, has yet to turn a profit, and it has seen a deep stock price drop since the start of the year. 

Trevor Brown | Democracy Reporter

Tony Aquila is here in the gallery today. Tony, thank you for believing in Oklahoma. And for helping to pioneer the future of our state’s economy.

Canoo is just one company that has seen the benefit of Oklahoma being open for business. Thanks to the Governor’s Closing Fund and the Legislature’s investment in business development, the Department of Commerce is coming off its best year ever.

Secretary of Commerce and Workforce Development Scott Mueller and his team are working hundreds of opportunities, thousands of jobs, and billions of dollars invested in our economy.

But “open for business” isn’t just about recruiting new companies. We’ve launched an innovative platform to help Oklahoma manufacturers solve supply chain issues. Our system connects them to buyers and sellers and keeps their money in Oklahoma. More than 400 companies are already signed up.

We are delivering on creating jobs and growing our economy, but we are at a critical junction when it comes to our state’s workforce.

Across the nation and here in our state, businesses are struggling to find the employees they need. We need more nurses, more teachers, more engineers.

Tinker Air Force Base is rapidly expanding I met with the Secretary of the Air Force at the Pentagon because we expect to add 6-10,000 jobs there in the next five years.

Our state’s workforce needs to grow at the same pace as our businesses. That means we have to be bold.

Our entire education system must be aligned and motivated to meet this challenge head on. Let’s tear down the silos between K-12, Career Techs and Higher Ed to train the next generation. Every student needs to be college ready or career ready. I know we can do it.

The road to success looks different for every Oklahoman. We’re all made in God’s image, and He has a unique plan for each of our lives. That’s why we have to provide career paths to match the skills of our students with the jobs in our communities.

Let’s increase apprenticeships in high school and pathways to jobs that don’t require a college degree.

Let’s align and leverage our system to train every Oklahoman with the skills they need to provide for their family.

In the middle of a nursing shortage, our universities can’t be turning away qualified applicants like they are now. Instead, we need to reward universities for producing graduates in critical areas. Our state depends on it.

Gov. Kevin Stitt recognized Canoo CEO, Tony Aquila, during his State of the State address on Feb. 7, 2022. Aquila was seated next to First Lady Sarah Stitt during the speech. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

Cutting Taxes

Last year, while states like New York were billions of dollars in the hole, we cut taxes for every single Oklahoman. We took care of the 300,000 working families being hit the hardest by increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit.

In addition to restoring the refundability of the earned income tax credit, which would cost the state about $28 million annually, Oklahoma reduced the state’s corporate income tax from 6% to 4% (costing $110 million a year) and its top personal income tax from 5 percent to 4.75% (costing the state $170 million a year.)

For the personal income tax, big earners will benefit the most. Tax filers who earn between $100,000 and $124,999 will save about $178 annually. Those making the state’s median income would save about $81. 

Trevor Brown | Democracy Reporter

We can, and we should, do more for Oklahoma families.

That’s why I’m proposing to eliminate the grocery tax. Oklahoma is one of just 13 states that taxes groceries, and ours is one of the highest. Many Oklahomans are already struggling under the weight of record inflation. Let’s give them more help this year. Because, after all, we need more taxpayers, not more taxes.

Democrats have proposed to end the state’s sales tax on groceries several times over the years, including in the House Democrats budget proposal last year. Although it has earned some GOP support in the past, there seems to be renewed interest from Republicans with Stitt’s endorsement and a proposal from Treat that would do the same. 

Ending the state’s sales tax would reportedly cost the state more than $300 million a year. 

Trevor Brown | Democracy Reporter

States across the country are continuing to cut taxes on their citizens. Nine states don’t charge a personal income tax. Many others are racing to join them, and we can’t be left behind.

My vision is to create a taxpayer protection plan that responsibly lowers income taxes according to our state revenue.

Cutting taxes based on how our economy grows ensures we’ll always have money to pay for core services like education and roads and bridges. As our economy grows, Oklahomans share in our success by keeping more of their hard-earned money.

I look forward to working with the Legislature to modernize our tax code this session.

Another way to do that is to get rid of the income tax on military retirement benefits. Our military installations are so important to our state, and we want to keep our retired veterans here in Oklahoma. It’s a commonsense way to support those who defend our freedoms. Let’s get it done.

Streamlining State Services

Legislators applaud during Gov. Stitt’s State of the State address at the capitol on Feb. 7, 2022. Few lawmakers wore masks and no distancing precautions were being taken during the speech. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

The fourth, and final, checkpoint on the road to Top Ten is delivering taxpayers more for their money.

This requires strategic investments in modernizing government agencies, transparency, building our savings account, and infrastructure.

Oklahomans hired me as Governor because they wanted their government to run more like a business. From day one, I’ve challenged my agency heads to deliver taxpayers more for their money. We’re doing it by making agencies more effective and responsive to our citizens, not by growing government.

We have 2,000 fewer state employees than just a few years ago, and we’ve invested into technology to provide better results. In May, we’ll launch a unified, cutting-edge human resources system for all state agencies for the first time in history.

In the past year, too many Oklahomans had to wait too long to get a driver’s license. Basic services that should have taken a few minutes were taking days or even months. This is unacceptable. We can’t let it happen again.

Stitt is referring to the lengthy delays at the end of 2020 and the first half of 2021 in getting driver’s licenses renewed or a Real ID. Oklahoma Watch wrote about that issue here. To catch up on the backlog, the state-funded “megacenters” in Oklahoma City and Tulsa last year that were open expanded hours and weekends. Stitt wants to combine some functions of the Department of Public Safety and the Oklahoma Tax Commission in new service centers for driver’s licenses and vehicle registrations. 

Paul Monies | Investigative Reporter

That’s why I’m calling for the Legislature to partner with me to make it easier than ever for Oklahomans to interact with state government.

Let’s start with drivers’ licenses and vehicle registration, because that’s something we can all agree needs to be fixed.

There’s not a business in the world that measures success based on how much it spends. Government should be no different.

I want to thank this Legislature for its commitment to transparency, especially in education. Last year, I worked with 22 state lawmakers to request the first-ever comprehensive audit of the Oklahoma State Department of Education, because tax dollars belong in the classrooms, not in the pockets of bureaucrats.

There are no rubber stamps and blank checks on my watch. That’s why we’re launching a new budgeting process for our agencies. It’s called Transparent Oklahoma Performance. You can track our progress online at top.ok.gov. I will keep shining a light to protect the taxpayers and hold our government accountable.

Joy Hofmeister, who leads the Education Department, accused Stitt of playing politics in calling for this audit. She is his top opponent in the governor’s race this year. 

An earlier audit of the Epic Charter Schools, the state’s largest virtual charter school, uncovered millions of dollars in excessive administrative costs being concealed by the school’s management company. So far, $20 million has been recovered but no criminal charges have been filed.

Jennifer Palmer | Education Reporter

I want to also applaud the Legislature for prioritizing saving over spending. Today, we have the largest savings account in state history at over $2 billion. This year, I’m asking the Legislature to raise the cap on our savings account to continue protecting our future.  This would give us financial security and the ability to make strategic investments like never before.

Investing in Infrastructure

Gov. Kevin Stitt’s cabinet applauded during his State of the State speech at the Capitol on Feb. 7, 2022. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

One of the ways we can make a generational impact is by investing in infrastructure. Secretary of Transportation Tim Gatz has taken this challenge head on. Across the state, we’re improving pavement and safety on urban and rural highways. We’ve made it to Top Ten in bridges. A major project at I-235 and I-44 in Oklahoma City is almost finished.

We’ve made great progress, but more can be done. The future of our economy will depend on having a modern highway system that manages congestion and has reliable travel times.

Let’s be bold. I’m calling to invest $13 billion in transportation over the next 10 years. This will let us close the loops around Oklahoma City and Tulsa. We’ll widen the Turner to six lanes the entire way. We’ll expand the Will Rogers in Northeast Oklahoma and parts of the Kilpatrick in Oklahoma City.

We’re also adding more access points for communities along our system. This will make travel easier and lead to more economic development across the state.

Here’s an example: the Kickapoo Turnpike has been open east of Oklahoma City for a year now. It’s created an economic explosion for the city of Harrah. In the last year, more than 2,200 new homes have started construction. Harrah’s first hotel opened in November, and the city estimates its population will almost double in three or four years.

We have an opportunity to bring that kind of growth to more cities across our state. We’ll announce more details — including drone corridors and emerging mobility— later this month. This is our moment to make Oklahoma’s transportation system the best in the nation.

Infrastructure is not the only place we can make a generational impact. The opportunities this year are endless.

Will we prioritize special interests or the people we serve? Will we prioritize the next generation or the next election?

Now is the time for big, bold decisions. Let’s leave a legacy for generations.

As I begin the final year of my first term as governor, let’s look back at the progress we’ve made.

When my administration took office, Oklahoma was coming off two years of revenue failures. We had almost no money in savings, which meant budget cuts were an annual challenge.

State agencies reported to unelected bureaucrats, and they weren’t being held accountable.

It was so out of control that the Department of Corrections wanted a billion-dollar budget increase.

The Department of Corrections asked for more than $1 billion in budget appropriations from 2016 through 2018. The agency’s most expensive request was $884 million to repair dilapidated correctional facilities and build a new medium-security prison. The state prison population has dropped by more than 20% over the past three years, minimizing the agency’s need to add bed space. 

Stitt didn’t mention efforts to reduce Oklahoma’s prison population or legislative proposals to better reintegrate formerly incarcerated people into society. He has been a vocal supporter of criminal justice reform and the state’s incarceration rate has steadily declined since he took office. However, Oklahoma’s prison population could creep up as court systems work through a backlog of cases delayed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Keaton Ross | Criminal Justice Reporter

Our state was reeling from a teacher walkout.

And on a personal level, I felt our state lacked the confidence and pride I saw in other parts of the country.

Because of our great work together, Oklahoma’s turnaround is well underway.

Our fiscal house is in order.

We’re coming off a year where we made record investments in education while still cutting taxes.

We’re fourth in the nation in budget reserves.

Our state’s credit rating has gone up.

We’ve held state agencies accountable by putting the right leaders in place and aligning them with a common vision.

Oklahomans have a renewed sense of pride in our state and our way of life. Thousands of people across the country have said, “sign me up.”

But to get to Top Ten, we can’t be satisfied with the status quo.

Jim Collins wrote in his book Good to Great, “good is the enemy of great.”

Will Rogers put it another way: “the road to success is dotted with many tempting parking spaces.”

Oklahoma has all the bones and the capabilities to be the greatest state in the nation, and we’ve come too far to settle for anything less than our best.

We must never lose sight of the fact that Oklahomans elected us as leaders. They sent us here to protect their rights and to make sure everyone in our state has equal opportunity to succeed.

Just because your life is fine, or your school is great, or your business is thriving, doesn’t mean we don’t have an obligation to make sure everyone has that same chance.

We’re all here because we have a higher calling to do what’s right, not what’s easy.

I truly believe Oklahoma can be, and will be, a Top Ten state.

Let’s work together, and let’s get it done.

I’m so proud to be an American, but I thank God every day that I’m an Oklahoman.

God bless you.

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 tbrown@oklahomawatch.org. Follow him on Twitter at @tbrownokc

Whitney Bryen is an investigative reporter and visual storyteller at Oklahoma Watch with an emphasis on domestic violence, mental health and nursing homes. Contact her at (405) 201-6057 or wbryen@oklahomawatch.org. Follow her on Twitter @SoonerReporter.

Paul Monies has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2017 and covers state agencies and public health. Contact him at (571) 319-3289 or pmonies@oklahomawatch.org. Follow him on Twitter @pmonies. 

Rebecca Najera is a Report for America corps member. She graduated with a master’s degree in journalism from the University of North Texas in 2021. Reach her at rnajera@oklahomawatch.org or (903) 808-0314. Follow her on Twitter @RebeccaNajera42.

Oklahoma Watch reporter Trevor Brown contributed to this story.

Jennifer Palmer has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2016 and covers education. Contact her at (405) 761-0093 or jpalmer@oklahomawatch.org. Follow her on Twitter @jpalmerOKC

Keaton Ross is a Report for America corps member who covers prison conditions and criminal justice issues for Oklahoma Watch. Contact him at (405) 831-9753 or Kross@Oklahomawatch.org. Follow him on Twitter at @_KeatonRoss

Lionel Ramos is a Report for America corps member who covers race and equity issues for Oklahoma Watch. Contact him at (210) 416-3672 or lramos@oklahomawatch.org. Follow him on Twitter at @LionelRamos21

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