With Principal Chief David Hill and two other Muscogee Nation elected leaders watching from the gallery of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, Gov. Kevin Stitt delivered his fourth State of the State address this afternoon and said the U.S. Supreme Court decision that functionally affirmed six tribal reservations in the eastern part of the state “jeopardizes justice.”
“Today, the state of our state is at a crossroads. We have a choice between two paths. One path leads toward a top-10 state,” Stitt said. “It’s a familiar road, and it’s paved with unity, fairness and equal protection under the law. The other path leads to a jigsaw puzzle of jurisdiction. From the beginning, I’ve sounded the alarm on the Supreme Court’s [McGirt v. Oklahoma] decision. Because I knew then, and I know now, that even a narrow Supreme Court ruling can fundamentally change a state. Oklahoma has been robbed of the authority to prosecute crimes.”
Stitt also proposed a handful of policy preferences, including the elimination of sales tax on groceries and a nebulous concept of directing additional funding toward retaining and recruiting teachers. But he did not mention the COVID-19 pandemic other than to say Oklahoma is open for business while “liberal lockdown states” are still experiencing shutdowns.
Stitt’s remarks drew pushback from Hill, the Muscogee Nation chief, and House Minority Leader Emily Virgin (D-OKC), who criticized Stitt for glossing over the ongoing pandemic.
“He really didn’t have any mention of the Oklahomans that we have lost since his last State of the State,” Virgin said. “There have been over 10,000 additional deaths since that point, but we heard no mention of that in today’s speech.”
Virgin said many Oklahoma families “are still suffering from a loss.”
“To not mention that is unconscionable for me,” she said.
Hill released a statement ahead of Stitt’s speech, outlining what he wanted to hear — and what he feared hearing — from the governor, who has feuded with tribal leaders over the reservation topic and casino gambling compacts.
“I will listen for any sign that the governor appreciates that the McGirt decision has paved the way for tribal nations to expand our law enforcement institutions and mirror the shared successes we’ve had in other sectors,” Hill said in his statement. “In the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, we have doubled the size of our police force. We have doubled the number of cross deputization agreements with other agencies and established a mobile command unit to facilitate collaboration across jurisdictions. We have added prosecutors, judges, and investigators.”
After Stitt’s speech, Hill told NonDoc that his nation also values finding public safety solutions.
“We are going to move on as a tribe on our side and do what’s best. Public safety? We agree there, that is No. 1 on our list as well,” Hill said. “As I’ve mentioned to him before, our law enforcement, everyone’s law enforcement has to take the same oath to protect the citizens. Even though we are Muscogee (Creek) citizens, we are still Oklahomans as well. So that’s our No. 1 goal, too — to protect the citizens of Oklahoma.”
In his speech, Stitt praised his appointed attorney general, John O’Connor, for filing challenges to the McGirt decision, including an effort to reclaim the state’s ability to prosecute non-tribal citizens for crimes against tribal citizens. Stitt introduced the mother of Billy Lord, a 12-year-old Cherokee citizen who was hit and killed while riding his bike in 2013. A non-tribal citizen, Richard Roth was convicted and sentenced to prison, but his conviction was overturned soon after the July 2020 U.S. Supreme Court decision, and Stitt said Roth cannot be retried in federal court.
Stitt asked Lord’s mother, Pamela, to stand and be recognized in the House gallery. She was seated next to Stitt’s wife, Sarah. Hill and his fellow Muscogee elected officials stood and clapped.
“This isn’t about winning and losing. This isn’t personal. It’s not Kevin Stitt versus the tribes. Instead, it’s about certainty. It’s about law and order. It’s about fairness, equal protection under the law, and one set of rules,” Stitt said. “We’re all Oklahomans. Let’s work together to solve this.”
Soon thereafter, individuals attempted to drop some sort of banner over the edge of the House gallery — as had been done during Gov. Mary Fallin’s 2018 State of the State speech. Stitt continued to speak as security removed the individuals in less than a minute. The attempted disruption occurred in front of University of Oklahoma President Joe Harroz and near the Muscogee Nation delegation. Second Chief Del Beaver said the demonstrators appeared to be two young women.
“It happened so quick,” Beaver said. “They were there and then they were gone.”
Hill said Stitt’s remark that people should “work together to solve this” issue regarding public safety was the part of the speech that should have been emphasized.
“The only thing I did agree on that he did say is that it’s time to come to the table and discuss it,” Hill said. “That invitation has been sent out since the ruling, and I’m still kind of waiting.”
Asked if he felt the current jurisdictional landscape was working, Hill said Muscogee leaders recently met with leaders of Broken Arrow, Jenks, Sand Springs and other communities.
“We’ve had several meetings with other municipalities to sit down and discuss,” Hill said. “It’s a learning curve, but you know what, it’s nothing that can’t be fixed.
“Let’s sit down and discuss. We can all work this together. This can work, but if you’re negative about it and are not going to make it work, you’re not going to make it work.”
Stitt pitches policy priorities
After making his remarks about Indian Country reservations, Stitt outlined his legislative agenda for 2022, a year that will feature his campaign to be reelected to a second term. He promoted multiple proposals related to education, including SB 1647 filed by Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat (R-OKC). The bill would create “empowerment accounts” where parents can use their child’s portion of state education funding to pay for private school tuition or other education options.
“It would make us a national leader in school choice. Let me be clear: Oklahoma has a lot of great schools, but the results don’t lie,” Stitt said. “We need new ideas, more options, and higher standards for our kids. This is just common sense.”
Opponents of the concept refer to Treat’s proposal as “vouchers” and emphasize that they would pull money out of traditional public schools and jeopardize the education of students who remain in those schools.
“We as a caucus have long stood against sending public dollars to private schools, and we stand ready to fight against that effort once again,” Virgin said, noting that she expects some rural Republicans to join in opposing the effort.
She called Stitt’s 2022 State of the State address “the most divisive state of the state I have heard in 12 years.”
Without offering significant details, Stitt also hinted at some sort of effort to authorize new teacher bonuses or additional payments to increase their compensation.
“Another roadblock in our current system keeps some of the best teachers out of the classroom. Right now, some talented teachers choose to leave the classroom to make more money as an administrator. Oklahoma students can’t be the best without the best teachers,” Stitt said. “That’s why I’m proposing matching funds so that our best teachers can make six-figure salaries and stay in the classroom.”
A former educator, Rep. Melissa Provenzano (D-Tulsa) said she was “excited to hear the six-figure income” proposal for teachers.
“I would like to see the plan,” Provenzano said. “I haven’t seen a bill that would do that yet, so we’ll have to look at that with scrutiny.”
Stitt also advocated for changing the laws governing how labor unions recruit educators at schools.
“Liberal unions want to keep a stranglehold on their cut of teacher pay. Enough is enough,” Stitt said. “Every other profession lets you opt-in to health insurance and other benefits at work every year. Unions should be opt-in, not opt-out.”
Only one of Stitt’s policy proposals drew significant applause from legislative Democrats. When Stitt proposed eliminating the grocery sales tax, Rep. Andy Fugate (D-OKC) and Rep. Jacob Rosecrants (D-Norman) stood and clapped in an exagerated manner, recognizing that their caucus had pitched the idea in recent years.
Democrats also stood and applauded with their Republican colleagues when Stitt proposed eliminating the income tax on military retirement benefits. Rep. Robert Manger (R-Midwest City) pounded on his desk in enthusiasm over the proposal.
Stitt also hinted at a legislative proposal to modify tag agencies and remove the driver’s license program from the Department of Public Safety.
Stitt also directed Oklahomans to visit top.ok.gov, a new website called “Transparent Oklahoma Performance” that features a mish-mash of data and metrics related to government efficiency.
Stitt called for investing $13 billion in transportation needs over the next 10 years, and he specifically pitched making the Turner Turnpike six lanes wide all the way between Oklahoma City and Tulsa. He referenced “drone corridors” and “emerging mobility” as topics he will discuss more soon.
“This is our moment to make Oklahoma’s transportation system the best in the nation,” Stitt said.
Stitt also proposed a joint statewide training facility for law enforcement and “a consolidated, unified command structure within a single department.”
“Forty three other states have this. Oklahoma should be no different,” Stitt said. “A unified command will create the career growth opportunities that today’s recruits expect.”
He also said ensuring enforcement of the state’s medical marijuana laws should be a priority for the Legislature.
A transcription of Stitt’s 2022 State of the State speech is posted online.