Gov. Kevin Stitt seeking teacher pay raise to take region’s top spot

OKLAHOMA CITY - Less than a month after taking office, Governor Kevin Stitt went before lawmakers to give his annual 'State of the State' address.

Stitt started off the address by saying that he wants to work with the Legislature to make Oklahoma 'a top 10 state.' He says he plans to accomplish that by bringing people from across the state to serve in critical leadership roles, put metrics in place to measure success of agencies and hold themselves accountable for delivering the results that were promised.

"I want to make it clear: as elected officials, we will not always agree on the specifics of every policy – and that’s OK. We are each elected for different reasons and because of specific issues," Stitt said. "You will always find my office willing to work with you and to be open minded on policy differences, because what unites us in this room is that we are committed to re-imagining how we can do state government better and deliver a brighter future for Oklahomans."

Stitt started off by calling for more power to be given to the governor, saying that the executive power is often delegated to boards that are not accountable to Oklahomans. He says the governor should have hiring authority over many lead agency positions.

"Let’s not wait for another crisis to start making this necessary reform across our largest agencies," he said.

He says the state also needs to remove board members across state government when they have conflicts of interest, and sunset or consolidate boards and commissions that overlap.

When it comes to the budget, Gov. Stitt says that he wants to prioritize funding for performance audits on the top 12 state agencies. In order to pay for those audits, he says the state is immediately recalling the $30 million that was given to the Oklahoma State Department of Health after the agency misrepresented its financial standing.

He is also asking the legislature to fund a $20 million grant program where agencies can apply to receive funds to digitally enhance their services to make it easier for customers.

"It is time to improve our government’s “D+” ranking in digital transparency and for the state government’s checkbook to be online, up to date, and easy to navigate. It is time for an online dashboard where you can monitor my administration’s progress on performance metrics we will set for delivering state services," he said.

Stitt says when it comes to education, he says he is asking lawmakers to fund a $1,200 pay increase for teachers across the state, which would bring Oklahoma to No. 1 in the region for teacher pay and benefits.

He is also calling in lawmakers to fund a bonus recruitment program, up to $5 million, to encourage teachers to stay in Oklahoma after graduating college.

"We must also standardize the certification test for Oklahoma’s teachers, get rid of the five-year renewal fee, and reduce unnecessary paperwork and bureaucracy on high-performing schools and instead shift resources to help schools who need it the most," he said.

He says districts will need to be revamped so they can ensure equal funding per student and an equal opportunity for everyone.

"We must not forget that education should be first and foremost about our students, not about systems. I will sign into law any legislation that seeks to break down the silos between common education, career techs, and higher education so that we can better align the education experience for Oklahoma’s children and prepare them for tomorrow’s workforce of machinists, computer programmers, engineers, and more," he said.

When it comes to criminal justice reform Stitt is asking for $1.5 million to be given to 'Women in Recovery' and $10 million to the County Community Safety Investment Fund. He argues that Oklahomans re-entering society need more opportunities to be employed, so the state must give employers more discretion on who they can hire. He also urged for improved conditions and compensation for Department of Corrections employees, but did not request a specific amount.

Stitt says he plans to use revenue growth to address the Graduate Medical Expense Program, which trains doctors, and the Children Health Insurance Program. He warns that he is concerned about expanding Medicaid because the state may have to end up paying for that expansion down the road.

"When Washington, D.C. wants to end a program, we are left holding the bag and covering the cost," he said. Instead, he is calling again for the governor to have oversight of the Oklahoma Health Care Authority.

Stitt talked about growing the economy with more jobs, not more taxes.

"We will re-imagine our economy by diversifying our marketplace, strengthening our workforce, and encouraging Oklahomans to start new businesses. Our rules must be clear, our regulations must make sense, and our tax code must remain competitive with our neighbors," he said.

He asked the Legislature to support additional funds being given to the 'Quick Action Closing Fund,' which is used to attract high paying jobs to Oklahoma.

In addition to attracting more businesses to the Sooner State, Stitt stressed the importance of a saving's account.

"When we look at states where the economy depends on the price of oil, they place a strong emphasis on saving during the good years. One thing we know is true, oil prices are going to go up and oil prices are going to go down," he said.

He said his goal is to have $1 billion saved by the end of Fiscal Year 2020 by putting aside an additional $250 million from revenue growth.

Reaction to the speech is rolling in.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Joy Hofmeiseter issued the following statement:

“We applaud Gov. Stitt for his commitment to lifting teacher pay to the highest in the region. Regionally competitive compensation is one of a number of important steps necessary for public education in Oklahoma to reach top 10 status. The Governor and I share that goal, and we are eager to partner with him and the Legislature for the benefit of Oklahoma schoolchildren.”

House Speaker Charles McCall responded to the speech:

"Governor Stitt outlined a conservative, pro-economic growth plan for Oklahoma that demands accountability and efficiency from our government while also addressing the needs of our core agencies. House Republicans share those goals, and we are ready to work with Gov. Stitt, our Democratic colleagues in the House and Senate leadership to accomplish those priorities.

Oklahoma Senate Pro Tem, Greg Treat also sent a response:

“Governor Stitt gave a great speech where he laid out a clear vision to provide accountability, transparency, and results. Senate Republicans are focusing on these issues too through our agenda that includes budget transparency, government accountability, education investment and reform, and furthering criminal justice reform. There is a renewed sense of optimism and excitement at the Capitol and I think the governor’s speech today is reflective of that. I expect much more cooperation this year between the Senate, the House and the governor which is good for Oklahoma. Senate Republicans are excited about the 2019 session and look forward to working with Governor Stitt, and the House to put Oklahoma on the path to top 10,” Treat said.

The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA) issued the following statement:

“The Governor’s theme was accountability. It was great to hear him dig into the details, pointing out that the only way to make agencies accountable is to change their structure. Either the Governor can hold agency directors accountable or not, and right now, most agencies are unaccountable. Governor Stitt pointed out that it’s dangerous to make Oklahoma more dependent on federal programs like Medicaid. As a businessman, he knows not to count on the promises of politicians in Washington, D.C. Oklahoma should continue to steer clear of Medicaid expansion.”

Statement from the Oklahoma Department of Corrections:

"We pledge to continue working with Oklahoma’s elected leaders to provide them information they need to make critical decisions governing our state. Oklahoma Department of Corrections employees do some of the state’s most dangerous jobs and are among the lowest paid state workers. In fact, our correctional officers remain the lowest paid in this part of the United States. Meanwhile, our state, despite recent reforms, still incarcerates its citizens at a rate greater than that of any other state in this nation. We are encouraged to hear of efforts to remedy our significant staff pay problem and continue addressing our state’s nationally leading incarceration rate."

Oklahoma Education Association President, Alicia Priest responded to the Governor's address:

"It is positive that Stitt wants to make teacher pay top in the region, but $1,200 won’t get us there. We’re asking for a $3,000 teacher pay raise this year. At the same time, we can’t forget our support professionals, many of whom make just above minimum wage in very difficult jobs. We are still seeking a $2,500 raise for them. The OEA is also asking for $150 million for our classrooms, to help schools hire more teachers to lower classroom sizes and bring back AP, fine arts, world language and other dropped classes. Over the next few weeks, we will have time to discuss details about how we get to the top, but today we are encouraged that the governor wants great things for our students. And we believe we have a legislature that still wants to improve on the progress we made last year in better funding public education."

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