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Stitt issues ban on self-promotion spending after vetoing similar provision in state education budget

Kevin Stitt (center) makes his way past an applauding Attorney General Gentner Drummond (right) at the 2023 State of the State Address.
Legislative Service Bureau
Kevin Stitt (center) makes his way past an applauding Attorney General Gentner Drummond (right) at the 2023 State of the State Address.

Gov. Kevin Stitt signed the budget bill for the State Department of Education into law Friday and vetoed two sections that would have put guardrails on State Superintendent Ryan Walters. But shortly after, he issued an executive order that covered some of lawmakers’ concerns.

In addition to the $25 million more into the state funding formula, the budget bill also had two controversial sections: one would have prevented the department from using state funds on public relations campaigns and media appearances — except those required by federal grant stipulations — and another would have required approval from the legislature to not apply for federal grants that had been awarded to the state previously.

Stitt line-item-vetoed those sections. He said in his veto the media restriction would have imposed a prohibition on one statewide elected official.

“It is reasonable to assume that [the bill’s media prohibition section] could be interpreted to prevent SDE from recruiting teachers to teach our school children, prevent SDE from addressing constituent concerns and prevent any number of routine public communications needed for a state agency overseeing thousands of employees and a majority of our students,” Stitt said in the veto.

As for the federal grant section, he wrote he is unaware of another state agency with such restrictions.

After the line-item vetoes were announced, Walters claimed victory in a press release, admonishing Rep. Mark McBride (R-Moore) and House Speaker Charles McCall (R-Atoka).

“The efforts of the teachers unions, radical RINO leftist Mark McBride and Speaker McCall failed. This is an unprecedented attack on me and my office and resulted in a disgraceful attempt to silence millions of Oklahoma parents,” Walters said in the release. “Oklahomans are not fooled by the political gamesmanship and reached out in huge numbers to remind everyone that the parents are in charge and want schools free of woke indoctrination, radical gender games and critical race theory, and are demanding common sense outcomes for their kids.”

But minutes later, Stitt announced he had signed an executive order banning all state employees from using tax dollars for self-promotion. In full, the executive order:

  • Prohibits all state agencies from entering into sole source contracts with PR firms and communications vendors. Sole source contracts are those obtained without a bidding process.
  • Directs all contracts with PR firms to be procured through a 30-day request for proposal process.
  • Directs any current sole source contracts with state agencies to be terminated at the end of the contractual term. If the contract provides for early termination, notice of termination has to be given by the agency within 90 days of the executive order’s issuance.
  • Prohibits state agencies from contracting with PR firms that have an active contract with “any campaign-related matter,” which it describes as candidates, ballot questions, or policy-based nonprofit organizations.
  • Prohibits state agencies from contracting with PR firms that employ registered lobbyists. It also directs agencies to terminate contracts if PR firms are caught participating in unregistered lobbying.
  • Specifies that PR firms can only perform objectives “clearly defined” in contracts as outlined in the agency’s request for proposal. It adds, “all such objectives shall advance the mission and service delivery of the state agency for the State of Oklahoma.”
  • Prohibits any state agency, agency director or state employee from using any tax dollars, spent in- or out-of-state, for the purpose of self promotion or for promoting any matter outside of the scope of the agency.

Stitt wrote in the executive order’s preamble that its purpose was to reinforce good stewardship of taxpayer dollars.

“Whereas, the taxpayers should never foot the bill for the political ambition of an individual, regardless of his or her position in state government; and whereas the use of taxpayer funds for campaign purposes is already a violation of state law; and whereas any communications distributed by state agencies, state agency directors and/or state employees should be in service to the people of Oklahoma and the state’s interest; and whereas any contract with a public relations firm should keep the Oklahoma taxpayer as the top priority; and whereas public relations contracts should not be used as fronts for lobbying or advocacy campaigns against state efforts.”

The State Department of Education came under scrutiny after an Oklahoma Watch and FOX 25 joint investigation found Walters hired the public relations firm Vought Strategies to book media interviews and write opinion articles for $200 per hour. The initial contract could be nearly three and a half years long if extended, totaling at least $210,000 — though inconsistencies in contract language could mean an even larger payout.

Despite Walters’ response the contract was needed for Oklahoma teacher recruitment, the investigation found none of the email pitches obtained by the news outlets addressed those topics, instead focusing on classroom culture war issues.

The department is also contracted with Texas-based Precision Outreach. Last year, Precision Outreach produced videos for OSDE against teacher unions and describing transgender students as threats in schools for $22,500. The firm is under a current $50,000 contract to produce 10 social media posts and two videos a month for the department.

Advocacy organizations Defense of Democracy, Freedom Oklahoma and The Human Rights Campaign released a joint statement following the announcement of the executive order, calling it a “major victory” for Oklahomans.

“Superintendent Walters thought he could bully LGBTQ+ students, drive Oklahoma’s schools… into the ground, and use taxpayer dollars to boost his own political profile without repercussions,” HRC President Kelley Robinson wrote in the release. “But Oklahoma parents, education advocates, the LGBTQ+ community and allies, and ultimately, elected officials of his own party, refused to let that happen. Walters is a victim of his own hubris and incompetence — and these accountability measures are the result.”

StateImpact contacted the department for a response to the executive order and asked how it will affect existing contracts. This article will be updated with the department’s statement. OSDE spokesperson Dan Isett told nonprofit news outlet Oklahoma Voicethe order does not affect any existing agency contracts.

Beth Wallis holds a journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma. Originally from Tulsa, she also graduated from Oklahoma State University with a bachelor's degree in music education and a master's degree in conducting performance. She was a band director at a public school for five years.