Gov. Kevin Stitt led off his third state of the state Monday afternoon with a review of Oklahoma’s COVID-19 response, repeating his belief the state is "months and months ahead of other states."
Stitt pointed to his June 1 reopening of the state as a driving factor in the state’s current single-digit unemployment rate and thanked his task force for standing up testing sites and chasing down personal protective equipment. Stitt said Oklahoma has one of the nation’s top vaccination rates, and that’s not going to slow down.
"More supplies of vaccines are on the way, and I assure you, we will be relentless. My vision is to get our summer back, and we can do it by continuing to lead the nation in vaccinations," Stitt said.
Stitt encouraged people to continue wearing masks, washing their hands and watching their distance. When House Democrats responded to Stitt’s speech later Monday afternoon, Minority Leader Emily Virgin said the governor’s version of events was, quote, "revisionist history."
"No state wishes that they would have responded to this pandemic the way that Oklahoma has. From his own lack of personal responsibility to the lack of public health policies driven by data, Gov. Stitt’s response to this pandemic has been an example of failed leadership," Virgin said.
Virgin said the state failed to follow basic Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines like require masks, kept information about the pandemic hidden and didn’t implement protections for front line workers. She said Republican lawmakers’ failure to condemn Stitt’s actions served to condone them.
House Democrats have introduced virus-related measures for the legislative session, including a mask requirement and relief for frontline workers.
After a rocky 2020, Stitt promised a better working relationship with lawmakers to implement what he referred to as "the people’s agenda."
"The people of Oklahoma made their voices heard loudly in November. They gave House Republicans five more seats and the strongest supermajority in state history. More than 80% of the House and Senate are now led by conservative Oklahomans," Stitt said.
Stitt alluded to anti-abortion bills and fighting President Joe Biden, but he put concrete proposals on the table to lure businesses to the state and, therefore, additional jobs and taxpayers. Those included an additional $20 million dollars for the Governor’s Quick Action Closing Fund and $15 million for a start-up accelerator. Virgin said the governor’s proposals show he puts business profits over people.
"According to Forbes, Oklahoma is already in the top 10 for the cost of operating a business and has been for some time. It’s our inability to invest in health care, infrastructure and education that’s costing us jobs," Virgin said.
Stitt proposed shifts in education policy, including an overhaul of the state funding formula because he says schools are getting money for "ghost students" who no longer go there. Rep. Melissa Provenzano (D-Tulsa) said that’s not how it actually works.
"It was embarrassing, and as state leaders, we need to understand what the funding formula does, why it does it that way and to be able to apply it correctly. We’re known across the nation for our funding formula," Provenzano said.
The term "ghost students" originally came up in during the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation's look at Epic Charter Schools from an agent alleging the school was inflating its enrollment numbers by including students getting instruction elsewhere. A conservative think tank took to using the term to describe schools using a prior year average daily attendance number for the funding formula.
Schools are allowed to use the highest of the current year or the prior two years in order to avoid sudden layoffs when enrollment drops. Attendance is based not only on the actual number of students, but also on weighted values for students with higher needs, like those with disabilities.
Another education policy Stitt wants lawmakers to pursue is allowing open transfers so families can send their kids to the public school of their choosing.
Stitt is also intent on civil service reforms in state government, something he’s pursued throughout his term.
"Senate Republicans are ready to work with the governor and our House colleagues to help Oklahoma rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic, grow and diversify our economy, help state government deliver services more efficiently to taxpayers, and invest in the people of Oklahoma," Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat (R-Oklahoma City) said in a statement.
"The governor will find strong support in the House for keeping the economy open, resuming in-person school, empowering parents and improving school finances. On those and all other issues, we appreciate and will reciprocate the governor's pledge to work together and have a productive session for all Oklahomans," House Speaker Charles McCall said in a statement.
It was the last thing he talked about, but Stitt described resolving issues raised by the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last July that the Muscogee (Creek) Nation was never disestablished as "the most pressing issue" for the state’s future.
"The U.S. Supreme Court in McGirt v Oklahoma questions the sovereignty of the state as we’ve known it since 1907," Stitt said.
"Hundreds of criminal cases are being dismissed. This ruling also raises many other unanswered questions."
Stitt said the court’s decision also throws into question things like whether tribal citizens pay income tax and sales tax, and who regulates agriculture, water, oil and gas, and land use. Virgin described the governor’s description of the situation as fearmongering.
"And let me be clear. The Oklahoma House Democrats believe that tribal nations in Oklahoma are sovereign nations and should be treated as such instead of being disrespected by the head of state in Oklahoma," Virgin said.
Stitt again said he’s invited tribal leaders to sort out post-McGirt issues. The Muscogee (Creek) Nation did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement, Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said any solution must preserve strong tribal governments.
Cherokee leaders are calling on Congress to expand authority for tribes and the state to enter into agreements on handling criminal law matters.