OKLAHOMA CITY — If Gov. Kevin Stitt gets his way, every classroom teacher will receive a permanent $1,200 raise, school districts will have the opportunity to offer teachers recruiting incentives and criminal justice reform programs will see a bump in funding.
But there also will be no new money for classrooms, rural hospitals, colleges, universities or CareerTech and most other state agencies, according to the proposed executive budget released Monday by Stitt’s administration.
Stitt outlined his budget priorities Monday during a 32-minute State-of-the-State address, which officially kicked off the 57th legislative session.
“My vision for Oklahoma is very clear and simple: to make Oklahoma Top 10,” he said. “My purpose is to work with you to deliver a turnaround that ensures a better future for all 4 million Oklahomans.”
As Stitt unveiled his first budget, he asked lawmakers to join with him “in reimaging” what Oklahoma could become.
He said his administration is committed to public education and understands the majority of Oklahoma children will attend public schools, so it’s critical to get qualified teachers in Oklahoma classrooms as soon as possible.
“Over the next few years, we will move the needle in outcomes,” he said. “We will set high standards. We will enact reforms. We will invest in the classroom. But we must first continue our investment in the teacher, because it’s not programs, curriculum or resources that students will remember. The magic happens between the student and the teacher in the classroom.”
Stitt asked the Legislature to spend $70.6 million to fund a permanent $1,200 classroom teacher pay raise that he said will bring Oklahoma to the top regionally in teacher pay and benefits.
And, to recruit and retain the best teachers, Stitt wants lawmakers to budget $5 million to create an incentive program where the state will provide up to a $5,000 matching bonus for any school district that wants to participate.
In a statement, Oklahoma State School Boards Association Executive Director Shawn Hime said the states surrounding Oklahoma invest on average $1,100 per student more in education.
“We continue to hear from education leaders about the desperate need for a long-term funding education plan to reduce class sizes; restore elective coursework like art, music, honors courses; provide classroom resources; increase training support for teachers; and broaden access to mental health counselors and school-based social workers,” he said.
Stitt also told lawmakers that he wants to increase funding to the Pardon and Parole Board and some treatment programs in hopes of reducing prison incarceration rates.
“The governor does not want Oklahoma to be No. 1 in the country in incarceration, so criminal justice reform is an important part of his financial strategy,” said Mike Mazzei, Stitt’s budget secretary.
But the administration also acknowledged that lawmakers also have nearly $237 million in obligatory expenses they will have to honor first. Those obligations include $99.6 million owed to school districts from property tax exemptions, $62.8 million in graduate medical program expenses, $14.8 million to pay for the Children’s Health Insurance Program due to reduced federal matching and $12.8 million to rebuild the medical examiner laboratory that serves the eastern half of Oklahoma.
“What we want to emphasize with this budget proposal and his financial strategy is a balanced approach between dealing with obligations that need to be addressed,” Mazzei said. “Some critical needs, but just like a family or a small business would do, also saving some money for unexpected events for the next downturn, which is out there somewhere inevitably.”
House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman, said her caucus had mixed reactions to Stitt’s speech.
“We certainly think this state is due for a turnaround. That’s something we’ve been talking about for a very long time,” she said.
Virgin said her caucus supports Stitt’s desire to be a Top 10 state, but “it seemed like the governor was lacking in specifics on how we actually get there.”
She said members support the teacher pay raise, but would like to see increased classroom spending.
Teachers have told members that they would rather have increased classroom spending in the budget if they were given a choice between the two, Virgin said.
The governor didn’t mention anything about classroom increase.
“We feel that that was a glaring omission,” Virgin said.
She also said it seemed like Stitt did a “180” on Medicaid expansion, which would give thousands more Oklahomans access to insurance.
“Last week he seemed open to it, and this week he seemed to take a big step back from that,” she said. "We think that’s foolish because like as we’ve said for a long time, it’s far past time to accept our federal money to insure more Oklahomans.”
Stitt said Monday that he’s concerned that the federal government could leave the state on the hook for billions when it pulls back its commitment.
“They’ve done it before, and they will do it again,” he said. “Medicaid is the fastest growing expense in our state budget, and before we commit our state to accepting even more Medicaid dollars, Oklahomans deserve accountability and transparency with our state’s management of the Health Care Authority.”
In a statement, House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, said House Republicans share Stitt’s goals, which he said propose “a conservative, pro-economic growth plan for Oklahoma.”
“We support reforms that give the governor more control over the executive branch and that provide the Legislature more resources to ensure taxpayer dollars are being used as intended and agency programs are meeting the needs of our citizens,” McCall said. “We also believe Oklahoma’s teachers should be the highest paid educators in the region, and real reforms that put more money into the classroom and improve student outcomes are necessary.”
However, McCall said that House Republicans recognize that the current health care system is not working for low-income and rural Oklahomans.
“We need an affordable Oklahoma solution that gives more people access to care and meets the unique needs of our population,” he said.
Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at email@example.com.