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During a gubernatorial forum hosted by The Oklahoman early Monday evening, neither Republican Kevin Stitt nor Democrat Drew Edmondson took a direct shot at his opponent. But when moderator and political reporter Chris Casteel asked Edmondson about a third-party TV ad claiming he will wreck Oklahoma’s economy, the former attorney general offered the wisest crack of the night.

“When I saw that ad, I was thinking, ‘Well, if that’s the best they can do, I think I’m gong to be alright,'” Edmondson said, his finger swinging like the advertisement’s cartoon wrecking ball. “Particularly the one knocking the barn down. That’s the most worthless barn I’ve ever seen. There’s no road leading up to it or leading away from it. If I was a farmer, I’d want that barn gone.”

The quip ended up being the closest either candidate got to mentioning agriculture at all, a fact that illustrates how much attention voters, media and candidates are paying to other issues: education, health care, the state budget and governmental corruption.

“We’ve got to fix the funding formula,” Stitt said on multiple occasions when asked about Oklahoma’s education system. “My heart breaks for the teachers. We have got to pay teachers what market is — competitive wages.”

The Tulsa businessman artfully evaded questions about how he would have paid for this year’s teacher pay raise since he strongly opposed the revenue package that paid for it.

But Stitt insisted he had a plan to improve teacher pay further. He also offered specific initiatives to incentivize new-teacher recruitment through signing bonuses and aligning Oklahoma’s teacher certification exam with the Praxis test used in about three dozen states nationally.

Edmondson, on the other hand, emphasized his proposals to raise additional state revenue for education and other initiatives, some of which he believes can be done without the legislative supermajorities required for tax increases.

“If the Legislature won’t do it, we may have to submit [some proposals] to a vote of the people, and I’m ready to do that,” Edmondson said. “We’re going to have a really new Legislature starting in January of 2019.”

The pair of candidates disagreed on State Question 801, which would allow school districts flexibility in how they use a portion of property tax dollars currently earmarked for building funds.

Stitt said he favored the November ballot measure, referencing a western Oklahoma school district he said recently built a new football stadium press box and added artificial turf while simultaneously discussing how they lacked basic classroom supplies. Edmondson said he planned to vote “No” on SQ 801 for fear that it would lead to inequities in funding and provide the Legislature a “cop out” for school funding needs.

Stitt: ‘I want every federal dollar’ except Medicaid expansion

Aside from SQ 801 and a brief exchange about whether gun owners need more protections than are currently afforded by the Second Amendment, Stitt and Edmondson found perhaps their broadest disagreement on the topic of Medicaid expansion.

Casteel noted that up to 250,000 Oklahomans could gain health insurance if Oklahoma entered into a partnership like more than 30 other states have done to provide low-income adults with health coverage. The moderator said federal funding would cover roughly $900 million of the price tag, while Oklahoma would need to invest about $100 million, or one-fourth of the amount of money devoted to the Legislature’s recent education package.

“We call them federal funds, but those are our tax dollars that have gone to Washington that we are wanting to get back,” Edmondson said while pointing to problems at Pauls Valley General Hospital, which is raising operational dollars by way of a Go Fund Me account.

But Stitt tried to thread the Medicaid expansion needle in a manner that left him dangerously close to sewing his own pockets shut.

“I want every federal dollar that I can get into my state for roads and bridges and health care and for all of that, but I don’t want to expand (Medicaid) and put my state into a situation that is going to be harmful years from now,” Stitt said. “Here’s the deal, if we expand Medicaid, we are going to increase the number of people on Medicaid. I believe in a trampoline that is going to help people, but we can’t create a hammock.”

Moments later, Stitt referenced a “need to get those federal dollars” to improve Oklahomans’ access to mental health care, something the state’s Medicaid program covers for those enrolled.

For discussions related to the Oklahoma State Department of Health, the Judicial Nominating Commission and more, view the entire debate in the video above.

Libertarian Chris Powell blasts The Oklahoman

Stitt and Edmondson will face each other and Libertarian nominee Chris Powell on Oklahoma’s Nov. 6 ballot. Powell was not invited to participate in Monday night’s debate, something he held a rally earlier Monday to decry.

In a press release Thursday, Powell criticized The Oklahoman for not including him and took punctuation-challenged pot shots at the paper’s economic viability, business decisions, editorial bent and purpose statement:

The Daily Oklahoman is the state’s largest newspaper, although circulation has been decreasing for several years.  As recently as 2016 the paper laid off over one hundred employees and outsourced it’s printing to the facilities of the Tulsa World even though ironically the Oklahoman no longer delivers to the Tulsa area. It has been published since 1889 and for most of that time was controlled by the Gaylord family, earning a reputation for political bias as reflected in criticism from the American Journalism Review and the Columbia Journalism Review.  In the purpose statement of the publication, they claim they will create value by “ensuring a voice for those who need one” and “fostering communities of well-informed citizens” although their decision to bar one of the three gubernatorial candidates from their forum would seem to be inconsistent with those tenets.

In a story promoting the debate in Sunday’s edition of The Oklahoman, Casteel explained the paper’s decision not to invite Powell to participate.

“Powell has not demonstrated sufficient support to suggest he is competitive with the Democratic and Republican candidates. Therefore, the decision was made not to invite Powell,” Casteel wrote. “Though not included in the forum, we will cover his campaign’s progress in the pages of our newspaper and our websites.”