At the State Chamber of Oklahoma’s annual public affairs forum Wednesday, legislative leaders answered questions about the economy, a proposed redistricting ballot initiative and gaming compact negotiations between Gov. Kevin Stitt and tribal nations.
“Reports suggest that the economy is slowing in Oklahoma. Oil prices are down 20 percent. Revenue collection from previous months are cause for concern,” State Chamber CEO Fred Morgan said during the day’s discussion with lawmakers. “There are some signs of slower economic growth in the next three to six months. What impact do you see this having on the state budget?”
House Speaker Charles McCall (R-Atoka), House Minority Leader Emily Virgin (D-Norman), Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat (R-OKC) and Senate Minority Leader Kay Floyd (D-OKC) each answered Morgan’s question about the economy, as well as four others.
“We know there are always going to be ebbs and flows of state revenue. The great news is that we are coming off of two years where the economy had really bounced back strong,” McCall said, referencing better revenues and additional savings made possible by the Legislature’s historic 2018 revenue package.
McCall noted that the state’s Rainy Day Fund had shrunk to about $70 million before that agreement was reached.
“That was all that we had in state reserves,” he said. “Today (…) we’re sitting at $1.1 billion in state reserves to protect a future Legislature and the citizens of Oklahoma. But in comparison, that’s still not significant. If you look back at this cycle we just went through, it would have taken $4 billion to stabilize it.”
McCall said he felt positive about ongoing efforts to diversify Oklahoma’s economy. His peers on stage with him largely agreed.
“Obviously when you have a sluggish economy, it is going to affect the budget of the state,” Floyd said, referencing McCall’s statement on economic diversification. “Tourism is a perfect example. Our lieutenant governor in just a year has done a wonderful job in a short period of time with tourism. The aerospace industry is a perfect example of how we have diversified. That industry has a huge footprint in the state right now, and they can’t keep enough people for the jobs they’ve got.”
Floyd said she is supporting the efforts of Sen. Roger Thompson (R-Okemah) in pursuing more film production in Oklahoma.
“You’ve got the west coast, which is pricing itself out of the market. The east coast is doing the same,” Floyd said. “Georgia is trying to take up the slack, but they’re saturated. And we are geographically based in the perfect position to get involved more heavily in that industry.”
Virgin also spoke of economic diversification as a priority.
“In order to do that, I think we have to continue the investment that we have started to make in education,” she said, adding that health care investment is also key and that state leaders should recognize the “overwhelming” support OKC voters showed for the MAPS 4 sales tax extension Tuesday.
Treat offered a note of perspective on the MAPS 4 vote, which passed with 72 percent support.
“We got criticized as being inept and not knowing how to lead when we got five votes shy of 75 percent on a revenue package a couple of years ago, if you remember,” Treat said to laughter from Virgin and others. “I just wanted to remind people of that.”
Redistricting, gaming compacts bring out #okleg differences
Morgan also asked the legislative leaders about a proposed redistricting ballot initiative and tribal gaming compact negotiations. Regarding redistricting, Democrats expressed levels of support while Republicans panned the proposal, which would establish an independent commission with the assistance of the Oklahoma State Supreme Court.
“I am adamantly opposed to the state question,” Treat said. “I think it is a political power grab. It was a century in Oklahoma where the other party controlled every apparatus of state government, and it wasn’t until the apparatuses of state government moved to the Republican hands that people started crying foul.”
Virgin, on the other hand, said she believes the public wants more independence in the process of redrawing legislative and congressional lines after every Census. She and Treat both served in the Legislature when lines were last redrawn circa 2011.
“I was able to essentially draw my own district and pick my own voters,” Virgin said. “If you asked the voters in the public in the state of Oklahoma if they think that is fair and democratic, I think they would say no. Some of the very aggressive reactions you are seeing tell you that there is a lot of power in drawing these maps and redistricting.”
Floyd said she would refrain from commenting on the proposed state question owing to an ongoing legal challenge, but she did emphasize the importance of the upcoming 2020 Census.
“If we don’t have a complete count citywide, countywide and statewide, we stand to lose millions and millions of dollars in federal funding,” Floyd said.
Morgan’s next question asked lawmakers to state their “ideal outcome” concerning Gov. Kevin Stitt’s disagreement with tribal leaders over whether gaming compacts automatically renew Jan. 1. Morgan asked Floyd the question first, who paused before drawing laughs by saying: “Pass.”
“Our tribal partners are one of our largest partners in the state of Oklahoma,” Floyd ultimately said. “I am hopeful that there will be some negotiation.”
Treat was also relatively cautious with his words.
“It’s a very difficult issue,” he said. “I understand the governor’s desire to get more revenue off of it. My ultimate desire is that it would go to arbitration.”
Virgin, on the other hand, was critical of Stitt.
“The governor is getting some bad advice on what the compacts are and what they do,” she said. “I’m very concerned about the tone the governor has taken in these conversations.”
McCall said he believes a “win-win” is still possible for the state and the tribes.
“I have full faith in our tribal leaders in the state of Oklahoma, and I have faith in the governor that they will get in there and get it done,” McCall said.
‘I was born immune to snake venom’
Morgan’s first request of the legislative forum might have drawn the day’s most interesting responses: Tell the audience something they don’t know about you.
Treat answered first, noting that while he does not watch much television, he does have a guilty pleasure: TLC’s What Not To Wear.
“I think I could use the help, but also I just like the redeeming quality. People with low self-confidence, and their friends care enough about them not to shame them but to help them, to lift them up and lift their spirits,” Treat said. “I like the show, so if there’s a producer for What Not To Wear anywhere, I’d love to go on there and get a new wardrobe.”
Floyd said she had to ponder whether to tell 600 people something they don’t know about her two years before seeking re-election. Ultimately, she revealed her original professional goal.
“After I graduated high school and before I went to college, I spent a summer working at a vet clinic in Ada where I grew up,” Floyd said. “(Then) I spent a second year working at the same vet clinic because I thought I was going to be a veterinarian and I wanted to be a veterinarian. But then I took some political science classes and ended up being an attorney instead.”
McCall told the audience that he hiked to the top of Mt. Fuji in college, and he revealed a serpentine surprise.
“When I came into this world, I was born immune to snake venom,” McCall said. “My mother was bit by a snake while she was carrying me. The antivenom in her system (entered) mine. I was born premature because of that, and the doctor said I was going to be immune to snake venom for probably a year or so.”
Morgan replied: “The snake [antivenom] was probably very helpful growing up in southeastern Oklahoma, and maybe with your job today.”
Virgin revealed her unusual fact by asking the audience to imagine which legislative leader on stage was most likely to have lettered in football and earned three Big 12 championship rings in college.
“I bet you wouldn’t pick me, but it is me. I was a football equipment manager at the University of Oklahoma while I was in college,” Virgin said. “I didn’t bring the rings with me, but I have a picture of them on my phone because I know that people in our line of work sort of like to make things up sometimes.”