With less than four hours to go before his State of the State address on Monday, Gov. Kevin Stitt looked more like the CEO of his former life, sporting a tieless dress shirt and dark blue blazer, appearing more business casual than statesman. Hustling down the hall of his second-floor Capitol office on the hunt for his chief of staff, Stitt poked his head into his main conference room where he stumbled into a cluster of reporters who had gathered for a preview of the budget he would officially present later that day.
“Year two, let’s do this folks,” Stitt said enthusiastically to the room in his trademark style of sanguine folksiness, which he used throughout his first year in office, promising a better approach to state government now that a can-do businessman was at the helm.
Last year, Stitt leveraged his political honeymoon into a largely successful implementation of his agenda. A Republican-controlled Legislature gave him expanded power over agency heads, boosted funding for a business incentive fund and pushed the state’s Rainy Day fund to $1 billion, a safety net that could help him avoid making the same cuts as his predecessor.
Stitt pleased his rural base with an expansion of gun rights, signing open carry as his first bill as governor. He also drew bipartisan praise for approving one of the largest commutations in U.S. history at a time when Oklahoma leads the nation in incarceration.
“The state of our state is growing in strength, stability, and new opportunity for generations to come,” Stitt, now sporting a red tie, said at the top of Monday’s State of the State inside the House chambers, which launched the start of a new legislative session.
“We are getting there because of the hard work of Oklahoma’s entrepreneurs, because of the dedication of teachers in the classroom, because of the generous givers and compassion coming from Oklahoma’s non-profits, because of the community involvement of churches, and because of those in this room, and across our state agencies, who are making the tough, selfless decisions for the future of our great state.”
But Stitt’s second year in office is shaping up to be much more challenging than his first as a slate of political battles will go a long way in shaping his first term.
Most political observers still view Stitt as a largely popular governor in red state Oklahoma.
But his political capital is being tested as he confronts the state’s powerful tribal community, arguing casino gaming compacts are no longer valid and should be renegotiated with higher fees paid to the state.
The issue is now before a federal court after Stitt was sued by multiple tribes, but some Republican leaders — including House Speaker Charles McCall — have broken from their governor’s position, siding with the tribes who have deep ties in many of the rural communities where Stitt found much of his support.
Following Stitt’s address, Democrats accused the governor of stubbornly refusing to budge in the gaming compact feud, adding that they believe Stitt narrowly views the tribes as just an operator of casinos.
“All he wants right now is to win, it’s (about) a win for him, it’s not about a win for the state of Oklahoma,” said House Minority Leader Emily Virgin after the State of the State.
Democrats also pushed back on Stitt’s plan to utilize federal Medicaid block grants as a way to expand healthcare coverage to low-income Oklahomans.
Stitt’s block grant plan, which he announced last week and addressed at length in his State of the State, is a counter to a full Medicaid expansion proposal that will go before voters later this year, potentially serving as a referendum on Stitt’s own plan.
“We will encourage able-bodied adults to transition towards a path of maintaining private insurance and pursuing educational or employment opportunities that advances their full personal potential,” Stitt said during his address.
“With straight Medicaid Expansion, Oklahoma will be left with the same ineffective and unaccountable program that has failed to bring us out of bottom ten rankings.”
Besides Democrats, Stitt also faces opposition from some within his own party who view the block grant plan as another form of Medicaid expansion.
A projection of revenue remaining relatively flat from the previous year will add another wrinkle to the 2020 session, especially if official budget projections certified later this month show any change.
Mike Mazzei, Stitt’s budget secretary, said international events, including continued tensions in the Middle East and global reaction to coronavirus, could impact oil and gas prices in a variety of ways.
“If (the final budget numbers) vary at all later this month I think it is going to vary down, not up,” Mazzei said Monday.
Stitt used his State of the State to manage budget expectations and ask lawmakers to put a question before voters that would approve an increase in the Rainy Day fund’s Constitutional cap.
“When I delivered this address last year, 60 percent more drilling rigs were operating in Oklahoma than exist today,” Stitt said. “Our first budget together was blessed by a thriving industry. Now, we must look at the realities of a changing and evolving market that is becoming more efficient and less influenced by international volatility.”
The fact that 2020 is an election year for the entire House and half the Senate is a wildcard that may test the Stitt ability to cajole votes. It also may delay substantial talk of tax code restructuring, which Mazzei said he expects to be a topic held over to next year.
Democrats remain short on political power at the Capitol, but Virgin, D-Norman, enters her second year atop her caucus and said her party was prepared to counter the governor’s approach.
“We are going to be offering a pretty stark contrast and I think that’s what we owe to the citizens of Oklahoma,” Virgin said. “Give me more power, that’s what we keep hearing from the governor.”
Assuming some opposition, Stitt used his second State of the State to continue presenting himself as a political outsider who has temporarily been awarded the keys to state government in order to disrupt the status quo.
In proposing a consolidation of various state agencies, including the Oklahoma Department of Transportation and the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority, Stitt predicted friction.
“Some will cry that consolidation is disruptive. Let me be clear — it will be for political insiders and those that find comfort in big bureaucracy,” Stitt said.
“Oklahoma is winning,” he later added.
2020 is shaping up to be a year that will greatly define Stitt’s ability to win.