Legislative leaders and Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell applaud as Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt takes to the House of Representatives lectern to deliver his State of the State address Monday, Feb. 6, 2023. (Provided)

Reiterating many of his past priorities, Gov. Kevin Stitt called for greater school choice options, tax rate reductions and increased business recruitment efforts during his fifth State of the State address this afternoon.

“Members of the Legislature, we have accumulated a $4 billion savings account, and we’re going into this session with a $1.8 billion surplus,” Stitt said. “With our fiscal discipline, economic growth, and record savings, let’s make a significant statement that Oklahoma is here to stay on the national stage. The time is now. We need to keep the momentum. Let’s cut taxes.”

In making his call, Stitt nodded his head and pointed down with one finger, and he received a standing ovation from Republican lawmakers.

“In my executive budget, I am proposing to eliminate Oklahoma’s state grocery tax and reduce our personal income tax rate (from 4.75 percent) to 3.99 percent,” Stitt said.

Democrats — including Rep. Monroe Nichols (D-Tulsa), who raised his arms in support — stood and applauded Stitt’s call for the grocery sales tax elimination, an idea that their caucuses have supported for years. (Republicans, however, stopped short of eliminating the tax last session, with Senate leadership creating a task force to study a broader package of potential tax-system reforms.)

“These cuts will save each family in Oklahoma hundreds of dollars each year,” Stitt said.

But House Appropriations and Budget Chairman Kevin Wallace (R-Wellston) did not stand for the grocery tax reduction idea. He did stand for and applaud the income tax reduction proposal, and after the speech he explained his position.

“I like the thought of cutting income tax. The Tax Foundation has said all along that giving up grocery tax is not a good idea,” Wallace said. “I wouldn’t be opposed to a moratorium on it, but I’m not a big fan. If you look at balancing the budget — and everybody wants to incentivize work and leaving more money in the taxpayer’s pocket — if you want to be on top of reforming things in our tax code, you’ve got to look at sales tax and even (sales tax on ) services.”

Sen. Julia Kirt (D-OKC) expressed frustration with a rush to cut taxes when current state revenues could be used to expand state services.

“The governor is talking about fiscal discipline and really presenting just a bunch of back-of-the-napkin math instead of looking at what we need to invest in,” Kirt said. Our budget’s already artificially low. We’re not spending enough on public schools, we are not enough on mental health, and we’re seeing the effects of that.”

With a portrait of former U.S. House Speaker Carl Albert in the background, House Appropriations and Budget Chairman Kevin Wallace (R-Wellston) speaks with Muscogee Nation Second Chief Del Beaver and Principal Chief David Hill after the conclusion of Gov. Kevin Stitt’s annual State of the State address Monday, Feb. 6, 2023. (Tres Savage)

Avoiding topic, Stitt strikes different tone on tribes

With Chickasaw Gov. Bill Anoatubby, Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr., Muscogee Nation Principal Chief David Hill and Seminole Nation of Oklahoma Chief Lewis Johnson sitting in the gallery, Stitt briefly acknowledged “tribal leaders,” but he made no reference to the sovereign nations or to the McGirt v. Oklahoma U.S. Supreme Court decision and the jurisdictional questions that he criticized strongly during in his first term.

“I liked his speech,” Hill said afterward. “But then again, to be No. 1 — I mean to be the top 10, you’ve got all the tribal leaders trying to work together. We can beat it. We can be top one.”

Last year following Stitt’s address, Hill said he agreed it was “time to come to the table” to find agreement on issues involving the state and sovereign tribal nations. This year, Hill said he has a coffee meeting with Stitt scheduled for the coming weeks.

Hoskin, meanwhile, said he appreciated that Stitt’s 2023 address did not include the various criticisms about tribal jurisdiction that he had included in 2021 and 2022.

“I think we’re always glad when the governor doesn’t, you know, take issue with tribal sovereignty. But you know, we’re part of what’s great about Oklahoma and I think it would be nice to see that reflected in the State of the State address, but I’ll take it as progress that we’re now not in a mode in which it’s combative. I think we can build on that.”

Stitt pitches proposals for school choice

school choice funding in state of the state address
Members of the 59th Oklahoma Legislature react to a moment during Gov. Kevin Stitt’s State of the State address Monday, Feb. 6, 2023. (Tres Savage)

While also saying Oklahoma needs more skilled laborers and truck drivers, Stitt called for efforts to expand the state’s workforce pools, and he asked the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University to make significant enrollment expansions by 2030.

“The state of our state is the strongest it’s ever been,” Stitt said, telling lawmakers that he expects 2023 to be Oklahoma’s “greatest legislative session yet.”

Stitt also said he wants to “bring Oklahoma’s education system out of the bottom and into the top 10,” and he referenced five primary education reform initiatives he would like to see:

  • Education savings accounts, otherwise called private school vouchers;
  • Performance-based pay raises for teachers;
  • An innovation school fund to spur the creation of new schools, which could potentially include public and private entities;
  • A reading initiative “to get students reading at grade level”;
  • Concurrent enrollment expansion.

According to Stitt’s proposed executive budget for Fiscal Year 2024, those efforts would cost a total of $382 million, with $130 million dedicated to the education savings accounts and $100 million dedicated each to the innovation school fund and the reading initiative. Only $50 million is dedicated to teacher pay raises in Stitt’s proposal, significantly less than a leading senator proposed weeks earlier.

“Oklahoma governors have been advocating for more parental choice for over 30 years. In 1989, Gov. Henry Bellmon proposed in his state of the state address, and I quote: ‘That parents be given greater flexibility to determine which schools their children will attend. Thus providing access to educational excellence by allowing more parental choice.’ Those are Gov. Bellman’s words.”

Stitt said Oklahoma children need better access to quality education options.

“Our greatest asset isn’t our oil and gas,” Stitt said. “It’s not our football teams. It’s not the aerospace and defense industry. It’s our kids.”

Stitt also referenced a desire to strengthen family dynamics and encourage higher rates of father involvement in their kids’ lives.

“Right now, the United States is a world leader in fatherless families. One out of every four kids in America is living without a father in the home,” Stitt said. “And even those with a father are being let down. In the U.S., the average school-age boy only spends about 30 minutes per week in one-on-one conversations with his father. For comparison, the same boy, on average, will spend about 44 hours per week watching television, playing video games and searching the internet.”

Stitt, who called for expanded fatherhood programs in Oklahoma communities, introduced his own father in the House gallery. When he did, Stitt’s voice cracked and he slightly bit his lip.

“I didn’t think I’d get choked up there, Dad. I love you,” Stitt said. “Thank you, for pouring into my life.”

Moments later, however, Stitt proposed a policy initiative that many Republican lawmakers applauded but that many families who have children dealing with gender identity issues find appalling.

“We must protect our most vulnerable — our children. After all minors can’t vote, can’t purchase alcohol, can’t purchase cigarettes,” Stitt said. “We shouldn’t allow a minor to get a permanent gender altering surgery in Oklahoma. That’s why I am calling on the Legislature to send me a bill that bans all gender transition surgeries and hormone therapies on minors in the state.”

Ahead of Stitt’s speech more than 100 people chanted outside the House chamber “trans lives matter” and other statements in support of transgender individuals.

Rep. Forrest Bennett (D-OKC) said after Stitt’s speech that he wished his colleagues would focus on supporting all families instead of singling out a particular group of vulnerable people.

“While it is free for the governor and others to use trans kids as a political punching bag, it hurts them,” Bennett said. “If nothing else, lets make sure that mental health care is accessible for everybody because, starting today and for the next four months, I would guess that anybody who cares about anybody that is not like the people who these people think are the right people to serve, they’re going to have a hard time.”