Ted Streuli: I’m Oklahoma Watch executive director Ted Streuli. This week, I’m here with Trevor Brown, Paul Monies and Jennifer Palmer, who all covered Gov. (Kevin) Stitt’s state of the state speech this week. Trevor, we’re gonna start with you. First off, can you set the scene and what this speech meant for Stitt?
Trevor Brown: So this was a pretty big speech for the governor. This is his fourth state of the state, and that means it could be his last if he does not win re-election later this year. The governor has also had a bit of a rocky start with the legislature. There’s been a few clashes. So he’d be again looking to close the bridges and kind of work with him on his agenda. But this is the big deal for him going into an election year.
Ted Streuli: Paul, what were some of the law-and-order things? There’s been a lot of talk about criminal justice issues, criminal justice reform. What did he address in the speech?
Paul Monies: That’s right. He kind of had two broad things with law and order. The first was McGirt, which was a Supreme Court decision that found that the Muscogee (Creek) Nation was never officially disestablished by Congress. And Stitt has said that introduced jurisdictional problems for a lot of crimes. And in the criminal justice system, he said it jeopardized justice. He also kind of went after the medical marijuana industry and some of the illicit grows that have been going on in the past few years from the lack of kind of tracking that product around. And so he said that was worth some more enforcement and maybe cracking down on some of the license costs as well.
Ted Streuli: Hey, Jennifer, you cover education for us. What were the big education takeaways in the speech?
Jennifer Palmer: I’d say one of the big ones was the voucher bill, Sen. (Greg) Treat’s Senate Bill 1647, called the Oklahoma Empowerment Act. Stitt kind of wholeheartedly endorsed that briefly. And then he also briefly mentioned teacher raises, that he wants some teachers, the good teachers or the effective teachers to make six figures.
Ted Streuli: Can you go back for a minute? Tell us a little more about Treat’s bill.
Jennifer Palmer: Sure. This is what’s known as like a backpack funding bill. It would basically be universal vouchers. So any student in the state could request one. And as long as they did not attend public school, they could get the funding that the state would spend on them and they could use it on a variety of things like private school tuition, transportation to school, tutoring, supplies, lots of things.
Ted Streuli: And I’m sure that anybody in education listening and hearing six-figure teacher salaries got pretty excited. Is there any realistic chance of that?
Jennifer Palmer: I didn’t see a lot of excitement actually. I saw a healthy dose of skepticism around that. I mean (for) our teachers, right now, the average is like $56,000 per year. So $100,000 is a long way from that, and there was no details on how that would be paid for.
Will Oklahomans Be Paying Less For Groceries?
Ted Streuli: Trevor, did the governor break any news in the speech?
Trevor Brown: One of the big policy takeaways that I saw was the governor endorsing eliminating the state sales tax on groceries. This is something that Democrats have been calling for for a few years. Last year, there was some momentum with Republicans. Some top Republicans aresaying they’re open to that. Obviously, Republicans are all about tax cuts right now. Democrats say this is a tax that unproportionally hurts lower-income residents. So the governor signing on to this proposal really shows that this has some momentum. I would be surprised that this does not pass it year.
Ted Streuli: And, you mentioned, always about lowering taxes. Did he talk about any other, initiatives to lower taxes?
Trevor Brown: The governor announced what he called a taxpayer protection plan. He says that would responsibly lower income taxes according into what the state revenues are. He didn’t get into the specifics behind that, but he talked about modernizing the tax code. He talked about the income tax on military benefits. So I think there would be a big discussion, but once you get into the weeds with some of these tax discussions, you could get hung up. And of course, the big question is how do you pay for them?
Ted Streuli: Well, one way is through other kinds of taxes. And Paul, you mentioned that he brought up some problems the state’s having with the medical marijuana system. That’s been around for a couple of years now. What did he have to say about that?
Paul Monies: He said that basically voters didn’t really know exactly what their voting on when State Question 788 passed in the summer of 2018. Now it, it passed by, 57% of the vote. And it had pretty broad support, across partisan lines as, as well. There was a little less support out in the rural areas and that’s where some of the issues are coming up now with some of these illicit grows and some of the counties out there. And so he wants to crack down on enforcement of that.
Ted Streuli: How’s that creating problems for lawmakers and law enforcement and others? And is it only the rural parts? How are Oklahomans feeling about those problems?
Paul Monies: By design, the state question kind of set up a very hands-off approach to medical marijuana. There was very few requirements for patients to get a license. The business licenses were low barrier of entries for a lot of businesses. So immediately we saw a lot of dispensaries in urban and rural areas pop up the first year. Some have gone out of business now and we’ve also seen thousands of growers, who also out in the rural areas are competing for electricity and land with traditional agriculture. That’s caused a lot of problems in some of the rural areas and some backlash there.
A Campaign Preview?
Ted Streuli: Jennifer, coming back to education, what were some of the big takeaways? You mentioned how he teased kind of much higher teacher salaries, talked about a couple other things. What else did he address? And I think it’s fair to set the table that he’s running against, when the election comes up, a former state superintendent of schools. So what he had to say about education was probably noteworthy.
Jennifer Palmer: So toward the end of the speech he did mention the audit of the State Department of Education. It was kind of a brief mention, but he kind of used the phrase “lining the pockets of bureaucrats,” and (he) wants to get to the bottom of that. That brought up some questions for me about Epic (Charter Schools) over the years. Honestly, that audit came out in 2020, and we haven’t seen a lot of action being taken by the state. They’ve tried to get some money back, and the state department has been successful in some of that, but it definitely has been seen as kind of a dig at Joy Hofmeister,who is running against him.
Ted Streuli: So do you think he making a specific reference to Epic when he was talking about bureaucrats lining their pockets, or was he talking about the school system, traditional schools, the whole system in general?
Jennifer Palmer: I think he was talking about the school system in general. I guess administrators, I’m not really sure.
Ted Streuli: (It would) be interesting to see if there’s any feedback from the school community about some of those comments.
Jennifer Palmer: Yeah. Joy responded after the speech, not necessarily to the audit part, but she did have some pretty strong words about the voucher bill.
Ted Streuli: What did she have to say?
Jennifer Palmer: Her quote here is “his voucher plan” referring to Treat’s bill that Stitt supports “is a rural school killer and robs funds from the 90% of kids attending public school.” And she accused Stitt of trying to dismantle public education.
Save It For A Rainy Day
Ted Streuli: Trevor, about what the spending side of the budget did he talk about? Did he talk about spending as well as lowering taxes?
Trevor Brown: Yeah, he talked about it, but he didn’t talk about it as much. But what he’s proposing is pretty much a flat budget. That means recurring revenues are about the same as what they are — you know, the current fiscal a year. I looked through his budget bill or his budget proposal that goes along with his state of the state, and he’s also proposing about $280 million for one-time expenses. Some of the things are $10 million for, the McGirt lawsuit fund, $10 million for other legal fees and $35 million for business incentives. But one thing also that he has made a big point of is building up the state revenues. The state’s rainy day account and other associated accounts are about $1.8 billion. Right now he’s proposing to increase that to about $2.3 billion.
Ted Streuli: Paul, you know, sometimes governors in their state of the state wander off of state topics into federal waters. Did Stitt say anything about federal issues?
Paul Monies: He did mention the Biden administration several times and kind of fighting back against the perceived overreaches by that administrative. He kind of went into some of the territories and setting it up as the state knows best how to handle some of these issues. And basically the federal government should butt out.
Ted Streuli: Well, that’s something we’ve heard for a long time in Oklahoma, right? That’s not a new idea. Paul, could you — going back to medical marijuana one more time— there was that proposal about seed-to-sale. Can you talk about that for just a second? Did Stitt address that at all?
Paul Monies: That’s actually came out of the so-called Unity Bill in 2019. It’s a system that’s supposed to track every part of the production process from the seed to this end sale. It’s pretty well designed and well described system. Unfortunately, that’s been tied up in courts. Several growers and processors and industry people filed suit against that, claiming the state was forcing them to use a particular system that went out to bid for a vendor. That (system) would some would seem to solve some of the problems that have popped up in the last few years, but it’s still on hold. And so maybe that’s part of the reason why there’s some of these issues with the black market and illicit grows, because we’re still tracking stuff we don’t exactly know where it came from.
Ted Streuli: Trevor, sometimes what’s not said in a speech is as telling as what is said. Was there anything notable that Stitt didn’t talk about?
Trevor Brown: I think one of the big things that a lot of people noted this immediately after was that he did not talk about COVID or the thousands of Oklahomans that died in the past two years. He referenced some lockdowns, but he really didn’t mention the state’s response, what we’re doing going forward or even offering condolences to the families or anything like that. I saw on social media and in other areas that a lot of people were upset about that, arguing that he doesn’t want to talk about it because our numbers are not as good as some of the other states.
Ted Streuli: Jennifer, have you heard yet any feedback? You’re well tapped into lots of educators and parents and any feedback from them on the speech so far? Have you heard any rumblings?
Jennifer Palmer: There’s a lot of pushback against the voucher bill. There’s also some support for the voucher bill from think tanks, OCPA (Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs) put something out right away. Jeb Bush commended Stitt for supporting that right away. They’re both big charter school proponents and have been pushing some of these expansions of certain school choice programs. On the teacher pay and some of the other things, I think there’s mostly questions. There’s a lot of questions about how any of these would get paid fo. All of the education initiatives he mentioned cost money and the education budget that he’s proposing is flat. So we need more information?
Ted Streuli: Trevor, what was the reaction to the governor’s speech at the Capitol, and especially across the aisle from the Democrat side?
Trevor Brown: There weren’t a lot of surprises there. Democrats were obviously not happy with the governor’s speech. I don’t remember a state of the state where Democrats have been happy with what the Republican governor said, (House) minority leader Emily Virgin said this was a campaign speech. Tribal leaders accused the governor of fear mongering, but on other side legislative leaders put out statements of support. It seems like the governor and some lawmakers are moving more in lockstep now than perhaps earlier in his administration. So he got the support from the people that he needs to get bills passed. So that might be what matters in the end.
Ted Streuli: Paul, one specific thing I was curious about that’s been under a lot of Oklahoman’s skins was the long lines to get a driver’s license and the never-ending delays with real ID. Did he address that at all?
Paul Monies: He did, and that was one thing that was definitely a huge frustration for Oklahomans across the state at the end of 2020 and all the way through 2021. In fact, it got so bad last summer that the legislature appropriated some extra money to start up what they call mega centers to kind of deal with some of the extra demand for this and the backlog. So they had mega centers in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. They both ran through the end of the year. That has helped a little bit, but I think what Governor Stitt in his speech said was that system needs to be better aligned. And so he’s proposing taking parts of the Tax Commission that deal with vehicle registration and some tag agencies out of the (Department of Public Safety) and putting them into one kind of service center for kind of a one-stop shop for vehicle registrations and IDs. That’s a plan. There was not much detail in his budget on that, but that’s definitely something he’s thinking about and then talked about in speech.
Ted Streuli: I’m gonna ask each of you to give one closing thought about both the governor’s speech and what we might expect to see in this legislative session that’s of note. There are some givens, right? We’re going to see some crazy bills that don’t go anywhere. We’re going to see some proposals to lower taxes. We’re going to see other proposals to increase spending. We know all coming, but if you could imagine sort of an overall arc for the session, what’s your forecast? What do you think we’re gonna see? Paul, let’s start with you.
Paul Monies: I think we’re going to see a lot of education bills come out that are kind of — Jennifer can talk more to this — based on the idea of parent choice and student choice in schools. However they do that, that seems to be a winning issue for some Republicans, definitely in primaries. On the tax side, the grocery tax for the state side is probably one that will have some momentum. Like Trevor said, the problem is still how you’re going to pay for that. It’s about $300 something million dollars a year you get to makeup if you get rid of it. Minority leader Emily Virgin talked yesterday about she has a bill that’s pending that would kind of phase that out over three years. So it would be a little bit each year. So there’s probably some discussion there back and forth that that could get dealt with this session, but it probably won’t be all at once or all in one chunk.
Ted Streuli: Well, Jennifer, what do you think? Do you agree with Paul? Is education going to be the hot topic for the session?
Jennifer Palmer: Oh, for sure. I’ve had several lawmakers tell me education is going to be the battleground. They are preparing for a very contentious session. I mean, Stitt’s proposals are all pretty controversial. So yeah, it’s going to be a hot session, I think.
Ted Streuli: All right. Any, anything else you see coming besides the education debates?
Jennifer Palmer: I’m pretty tapped into education. So you have to ask Trevor about that.
Ted Streuli: Fair enough, Trevor, what do you see coming?
Trevor Brown: I think we’ll see a good number of these so-called red meat bills, some of these controversial measures involving abortion, transgender policies, vaccine mandates. I think we’ll see a lot of them (with) lawmakers pushing them right away to see what sticks, what doesn’t stick. We have a March 3rd deadline to get bills out of committee. So they’re gonna be going pretty fast and furious with a lot of these bills. Like Jennifer and Paul said, education, tax cut, these are are going to be the meatier topics that are probably going to take a couple weeks for debate. And of course we always see the budget at the very end of the session. Everybody will be looking out for that as well.
Ted Streuli: Great. Trevor Brown, Jennifer Palmer, Paul Monies, thanks for your input. And thanks for your time covering the governor’s speech.
Ted Streuli: You’ve been listening to Long Story short, a weekly podcast that helps you get deeper into the investigative stories reported by Oklahoma Watch, which you can find on the web at www.oklahomawatch.org. This podcast was made possible by a grant from the Kirkpatrick Foundation, for which we’re grateful. For Oklahoma Watch, I’m Ted Streuli. Thanks for listening.