The Governor laid out his policy priorities for the session: which include cutting the state’s income tax, implementing a flat budget across state government for the coming fiscal year and more school choice options for students.
Gov. Kevin Stitt says Oklahoma is in the strongest position it’s ever been.
He made the declaration during his sixth State of the State address Monday, an event that kicks off the start of Oklahoma’s legislative session.
After thanking Senate and House members for their service to the state, Stitt wasted no time before touting his biggest accomplishments.
“In the last five years, we’ve had record revenue growth, the lowest unemployment and record savings,” he said.
The governor says he wants to continue pushing economic growth. And he argued that starts with tax cuts. He has support for a plan to phase out the state’s income tax from House Speaker Charles McCall, but not from Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat, who has called for a grocery tax cut rather than an income tax cut.
But finding that path forward was the thematic throughline of Stitt’s speech. He acknowledged recent disagreements with Treat and McCall over everything from education reforms to tax cuts and tribal compacts.
“We haven’t always agreed, but we’ve accomplished a great deal working together for the people of Oklahoma,” he said. “We have to work together to move our state forward.”
Here are some agenda items he hopes to accomplish with lawmakers this year.
Tax cuts are at top of Stitt wishlist
Stitt said he will sign any tax cut that lands on his desk.
“As we have growth, it should be automatic to return excess to the taxpayers, not to seek out bigger government programs,” Stitt said. “People are moving here every single day from states like California because they see opportunity and they see freedom and they see they can keep more of their hard-earned money.”
He called for a flat budget across state government in his speech. The aim: save the state money and lessen the blow of lost tax revenue.
“To be clear: I’m not advocating for cutting core services. What I am advocating for is a sustainable amount of growth where we are funding needs, not wants,” he said.
Stitt pointed to the effect of recent tax cuts passed by the legislature to support his position. Revenue collections have increased by $1.5 billion since the last time the legislature approved a quarter of a percent income tax slash, he said.
“That’s been the trend after every tax cut we’ve passed,” he said.
Stitt has support from House Speaker McCall, who is backing an income tax cut. Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat, though, isn’t committed to one type of tax cut at this time.
“’I’m still trying to push grocery sales tax relief on the state side,” Treat said. “Oklahoma is one of the few states that still has the state tax on it. It’s where the majority of middle-income families are hit the hardest. And Oklahoma, unfortunately, is in the top ten. And that’s in a bad way in the average cost of groceries on a per capita basis, on people’s income”
He said the Senate’s decision on what taxes are cut won’t come until it gets the official budget report from the State Board of Equalization on Feb. 15.
Lawmakers will ultimately decide what kind of tax cuts – if any – pass into law, as they are responsible for crafting the state budget.
House Democrats don’t think the governor is focused on helping everyday Oklahomans. House Democratic Leader Cyndi Munson (D-Oklahoma City) said a state income tax cut will only help the rich.
“The cost of the income tax cut would be $250 million to the state while only giving median income earners an average of $100 per year and the top 1% of earners over $2,300 per year,” Munson said in a reactionary statement to the governor’s speech.
A handful of bills proposing income and grocery tax cuts are already pending committee hearings and votes in their respective legislative chambers.
Tribal Nation leaders react following Stitt comments on McGirt, sovereignty
Stitt said McGirt v. Oklahoma has “rocked our state and caused division where previously there was none.”
Principal Chief David Hill of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation disagreed in a statement he shared after Stitt’s address.
“McGirt has not caused confusion, but political games by politicians like Sitt have,” Hill wrote.
During his speech, Stitt highlighted the One Oklahoma Task Force, which he established in December to address jurisdictional intersections between the state and the tribes, like cross-deputization of law enforcement.
“I hope that this task force can work to find a solution that protects the safety of all 4 million Oklahomans, regardless of their race or heritage, and I hope the tribes will choose to participate,” Stitt said.
But Hill said the task force undermines tribal jurisdiction and hinders law enforcement.
“If the Governor wants to work with tribes, we stand ready,” Hill wrote. “But we will not participate in a political stunt that will make our nations and our state weaker.
Stitt referenced multiple ongoing legal cases over questions of tribal sovereignty. Last month, the Oklahoma Supreme Court heard arguments in a case from Muscogee Nation member Alicia Stroble that could exempt her and other people who live and work within their tribe’s reservations from paying state taxes.
Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. applauded, seemingly in support of Stroble.
But Stitt said tribal members should pay taxes to the state regardless of where they live and work. He compared reservations in Oklahoma to the Navajo reservation in Arizona, where tribal members don’t pay taxes to the state. But Stitt said that’s because Arizona’s state government doesn’t fund infrastructure or law enforcement on the Navajo reservation.
Both Hoskin and House Democrats said that comparison isn’t valid. Hoskin cited tribal investments that help tribal members and non-tribal Oklahomans alike.
“The Cherokee Nation has invested $32 million into roads and infrastructure, contributed more than 7 million to law enforcement and has dedicated over $84 million to public school classrooms, while contributing millions to the economic impact in Oklahoma,” Hoskin wrote in a series of posts the Cherokee Nation shared on X.
The Oklahoma House Democratic Caucus also refuted Stitt’s comments when they addressed the press after his speech.
“Our tribal leaders and tribal nations are great partners with the state of Oklahoma who do invest in public schools, who do invest in roads and bridges, and who do invest in health care,” Munson said. “And so we personally took offense to that because we know of the great work that they’re doing across the state of Oklahoma.”
Stitt’s speech celebrated recent compact agreements between the state and several tribes.
“We appreciate the Governor’s comments towards respecting the compacts that were successfully negotiated in recent weeks,” Hoskin wrote. “Now it’s time to extend that same respect towards tribal sovereignty as a whole.”
School choice will continue to be legislative priority, hints of higher ed consolidation
Stitt said his education priorities during this legislative session include more support for Oklahoma charter schools and consolidating colleges and universities.
Stitt also praised the Parental Choice Tax Credit passed last year, which offers a private school tuition break in the form of a tax credit for qualifying Oklahoma families.
Looking forward, he said he wants to promote more workforce-oriented schools, like Norman Public Schools’ Aviation Academy, which provides pathways for students to work toward pilots’ licenses or technical certificates in aviation maintenance.
“Let’s empower community leaders to start new, innovative schools that are molded to the needs of our state and prepare our students for the future workforce,” Stitt said. “Send me legislation that paves the way for more charter schools and gives students more options.”
School privatization advocacy group, yes. every kid., which is part of the Koch Network, released a statement immediately following the address, reiterating the governor’s praise of private and charter schools.
“Every single child in Oklahoma now has the opportunity to attend a school that works for them regardless of their income or home address,” organization vice president Tom Newell said. “We look forward to continuing to work with the governor and ensuring Oklahoma remains a leader in education freedom.”
Stitt also brought up an issue of “barriers for charter schools to use vacant school buildings.” StateImpact has reached out to the governor’s office for more clarification on what that is in reference to.
The governor also addressed higher education.
Though he praised the state’s flagship universities, Stitt also called for the State Regents to consolidate some colleges and universities, but did not specify which ones.
“To be the best, we need to shift our focus to outcome-based higher education models and stop subsidizing institutions with low enrollment and low graduation rates,” Stitt said. “Technology has transformed the way we do higher education, so we can’t keep relying on 20th-century education models to bring our students into the future workforce.”
He requested legislation to incentivize fulfilling the state’s workforce needs, which already has traction among some lawmakers.
Sen. Adam Pugh (R-Edmond) is introducing a Workforce Development Revolving Fund this session in his Senate Bill 1358. It calls for a workforce commission to identify needs in high-demand, critical occupation areas and would allocate $2 million “for the purpose of increasing the number of degrees granted to fulfill workforce needs identified.”
Taming Oklahoma’s ‘Wild West of Weed’
Stitt touted Oklahoma’s marijuana regulations and enforcement. He said the state used to be known as “the Wild West of Weed,” but now marijuana business licenses issued in the state have decreased.
He contributed the reduction of licenses to crackdown efforts from the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority (OMMA). He said the state “some of the most effective enforcement and regulatory oversight in the nation.”
New medical marijuana laws went into effect at the beginning of this year. One law allows OMMA to send “secret shoppers” to licensed dispensaries for tasks like collecting marijuana samples for testing.
Oklahoma Democrats respond
Immediately after Stitt’s speech, House Democrats met with reporters to discuss their legislative priorities and push back against many of Stitt’s remarks.
House Minority Leader Munson said the “flat budget” Stitt is calling for would act like a cut. Because of inflation, many state agencies need more money to maintain their status quo.
“These folks are not growing government,” Munson said. “They are simply doing the very basic needs of Oklahomans and providing services that are so vital to everyday working people across the state.”
Munson also said House Democrats would fight expansions of the private school voucher program enacted last year, saying Stitt wants to eliminate the cap on those vouchers.
“Those are taxpayer dollars that he wants to go back to those who don’t need it, who are already sending their children to private schools,” Munson said. “We need to invest in public education, keeping public dollars in public schools.”
Democratic legislators did find some common ground with the Governor over criminal justice reform.
“I knew I’d get the Democrats going in a second,” Stitt said after party members applauded for “fair sentences and second chances.”
Munson said they were especially on board for eliminating court fees and fines.
“But in order to do that, you have to fund the courts,” she said. “Which kind of contradicts his argument or his plan or his vision to cut income tax.”