OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) — Oklahoma Watch hosted “If I Were A Governor” Thursday at a church in Oklahoma City where four former Governors of Oklahoma spoke on issues that matter most to Oklahomans.
The four discussed major issues they found with the current leadership and what they would do to change it. They also spoke about what they learned while they were in office.
It was called “If I Were Governor Today” and was hosted at St. Luke’s First Methodist Church.
The four included former Governor Mary Fallin, Brad Henry, Francis (Frank) Keating, and David Walters.
Before moderator Dick Pryor of KGOU could begin asking questions, there was a surprise appearance by historic former Governor George Nigh. Governor Nigh was accompanied by the University of Central Oklahoma’s band playing the state song of Oklahoma.
Not only was the state song playing but Nigh was conducting the band with the same pen he said he used to sign the bill that made “Oklahoma!” the state song.
“How incredible is it that the nation knows our state song,” said Nigh after the performance while he held the original record cover to the performance.
The questions started with asking what accomplishments each former governor was proud of.
Of the accomplishments boasted by the former governors, Henry and others discussed education, which was followed by much applause. He then proclaimed that good educators stay when leadership focuses on them and takes care of them.
“And I did that through bipartisanship, we need to get back to that,” said Henry.
Former Governor Fallin boasted about the pay increase to both teachers and education as a whole. This increase came after massive state and national walkouts held by teachers, staff, and many in between including students due to low pay and low morale.
“I am proud of being the governor who led the largest pay increase,” said Fallin.
The next question was aimed at what each of the former leaders felt was the bigger disappointment in their times as governors.
Keating started the answers to this question and said that while he was one of the ‘fathers’ of charter schools in Oklahoma, academic success during his time faltered. He also spoke to sales tax and taxes as a whole, wishing that while it had been good, he wish he had been able to modify the tax code a little more.
Henry then discussed the rainy day fund but more specifically criticized the proceeding offices/leadership’s use or overuse of the E.D.G.E fund that he built up. For years Okahoma gave money to the Economic Development Generating Excellence or E.D.G.E Research Endowment. Henry had said several times he hoped that investments would continue after he had left.
“By today’s standards the fund could be upwards of $1 billion if it hadn’t been used,” said Henry. They were instead used during the next administration.
The administration after Henry was Fallin’s and she addressed his disappointment during her answer saying, “There was only $2.03 in our savings account when I came into office.” Fallin then spoke on how the economy nationally had forced her and her office to require them to use it.
Walters took a personal route with his answer by discussing family. “I wish I would have put more of a focus on my family,” said Walters. Shaun David Walters was 20 years old when authorities ruled his death as a suicide in the early 90’s. Former Governor Walters addressed that and said that media scrutiny along with other factors brought pain and heartache to his family. He said it was hard to talk about but that the role of a public servant can take a toll on one’s family and he wishes he would have focused more on them.
A major topic that was discussed throughout most of the answers was that of education. All four said several times that it was something that should be dealt with in today’s Oklahoma political climate. The ways to do this were said to be through funding or listening more to educators.
The other major issue and one major question was that of relationships with the tribes and tribal leaders throughout the state.
“How would you approach tribal relations today?” Pryor asked that question to each one.
A takeaway from each of the former governors was the word respect.
“We need to reach out to the tribes. We need to realize and understand just how important they are to the state of Oklahoma,” said Henry. He then discussed how current Governor Kevin Stitt has handled the tribal relationship that has been built up over the years.
“The tribes usually know what’s right and we need to understand that,” said Walters.
Fallin discussed how for many years she had tribal leaders come to the Governor’s Mansion for a luncheon to sit and talk. “I would listen to them. I would ask them each what the major issue was and how we can fix it,” said Fallin.
Keating discussed Oklahoma’s First American Museum which was placed on the Native American Cultural and Education Authority in 1998 by Keating. He has been a voice and a supporter of tribal relationships with Oklahoma. On Thursday, he agreed with the others and said that a governor needs to approach tribal relationships through respect.
Finally, Pryor asked what the former governors would due to improve rural healthcare in Oklahoma.
“One of the major problems we have is closing our rural hospitals,” said Fallin. She also discussed how more hospital staff should be hired through incentives and how rural areas around Oklahoma lack urgent care clinics.
“We need a bigger health center,” said Walters. His answer included the same as Fallin’s but pushed more for telecare and connectivity, saying that it needs to happen. He said money from the Biden administration totaling $1.2 billion is “sitting there waiting to be used.”
Keating took a different route and discussed dental health care. “If you don’t have proper dental care then you don’t have proper health care,” said Keating. Keating answered by detailing new relationships and partnerships between Oklahoma University/Oklahoma State University and rural areas needing dental care.
As for Henry, he demanded that resources are desperately needed and leadership now should focus on incentives that could get doctors to areas that need them. “We need to beef up our support,” said Henry.