Editor's Note: This article originally ran in the August 26 issue of the Claremore Daily Progress.
Gubernatorial candidate Kevin Stitt is no stranger to rural Oklahoma.
One of his grandfathers was a dairy farmer in Skiatook. The other was the head veterinarian of the Oklahoma City Stockyards. Stitt and his immediate family live on a small farm outside of Tulsa.
While the CEOs of big business usually come from big cities, throughout his campaign Stitt has said, “I will be the governor for all 4 million Oklahomans. Rural Oklahoma, urban Oklahoma. I’m not going to be beholden to one industry over another one or one area of the state over another.”
The diversity of people and industries in Oklahoma lends itself to growth, Stitt said, “we have everything we need to grow our state.”
During a recent campaign stop in Claremore, Stitt spoke with the Progress about how he plans to grow our state and what he hopes to accomplish should he win.
“My vision is for us to be a top 10 state. I think we have all the infrastructure, all the bones, everything we need to be top 10 in job growth, top 10 in education and top 10 in infrastructure. I’ve got a plan to get us there,” Stitt said.
The key to that achievement, Stitt said, is fostering government efficiency, accountability and transparency.
“The governor is supposed to set the vision, put the plan together, hire the right people, get the legislature all moving in the right direction,” Stitt said. “The thing that frustrates me and all the people I meet in 77 counties, nobody is running state government. There are 120 different agencies that are running a $20 billion budget and there is no accountability, no transparency, at all, in state government.”
One of his plans for increasing accountability is giving the Governor the authority to hire and fire state agency heads. “Not to be a bad guy, but to create the type of accountability that we’re all used to in the private sector,” Stitt said.
Currently agency heads are selected by a board, and the board is comprised of individuals who are appoint- ed by the Governor to serve 7 to 9 year terms. Stitt says this method prevents agency heads from feeling as though they have a direct supervisor.
“When there is no accountability, when they don’t really report to anybody, then you can’t really make change,” Stitt said.
As an example, Stitt high- lighted a controversy that occurred with the State Department of Health in December, 2107.
“They lost $30 million and had to lay off 200 Oklahomans right before Christmas. People forget about that. Nobody was ever held accountable,” Stitt said. Due to a law passed by the state legislature, the new Governor will be first to appoint the head of the department. “I think that it’s very, very important to note that there is absolutely an appetite for accountability and transparency in state gov- ernment. I’ll lead the state legislature to do that.”
“As a chief executive officer,I’ve got 25 different departments, and I can’t let every single department run themselves,” Stitt said. “That’s the type of account- ability we need in state government, because at the end of the day this is about delivering services to our tax payers and our citizens, and treating them like customers. That’s why I think this is more like running a business than anything.”
Stitt said that treating citizens like valued customers is what will lead to the best rural hospitals, the best health care, an effective Medicaid program and efficient nursing homes and veterans hospitals.
“Until you have the authority to really make change, it’s really hard to move the needle.”
According to Stitt, many of the problems in state government are symptoms of a larger structural issue.
“Nothing is really going to change in education, in infrastructure, in policies to be the most pro-business state,” unless we solve the structural issues first, Stitt said.
“Everything starts at the top, whether it’s a sports team, a company or a state. The future doesn’t just happen. The leader sets the culture,” Stitt said. “Whether you’re the CEO or the Governor, you can’t dig into the weeds on every single issue, that’s why it’s called management.”
Stitt said that his experience managing teams, balancing budgets and setting strategies, make him a clear choice to take on the demands of the job.
Part of that management, Stitt said, is stepping up as the policy leader for the state legislature.
“I’ve called all the House and Senate members and started building relationships with them. I asked every one of them ‘How can I do a better job?’ They all tell me the same thing. ‘Have a plan and meet with us. Come hang out with us on the fourth floor’,” Stitt said.
“They are looking for leadership. They are looking for the plan and the agenda. They want to know what the direction is. You can’t lead from the House or the Senate. You have to lead from the Governor's office, and that’s what I’ll do as Governor,” Stitt said.
Audits and Government Waste
Insuring government efficiency relies on two crucial tools for Stitt, financial and performance audits.
“There has got to be a financial audit on every single agency every year. That’s just a basic,” Stitt said. A law requiring annual financial audits for all state agencies was passed by the state legislature in 2017 and will go into effect on November 1, 2018.
The idea Stitt is bringing to the table is regular performance metrics or performance audits.
“The right question that a business person or a chief executive asks is ‘How many employees should this agency have? How do we deliver better services?’” Stitt said. “Every state has the exact same agencies. Every state has a department of corrections, a department of transportation, an attorney general’s office and a department of environmental quality. So the right question is, ‘what type of performance metrics do we put in place to make sure we’re delivering great services?’”
Stitt compared it to his company and finding the right number of people to handle to volume of home loans they underwrite in a given month.
“I know how to do that, that’s why I think I’m the right guy for the job,” Stitt said. “Unless you’ve run different departments and different agencies, you don’t know how to put those things in place.”
Stitt said that performance would be extremely valuable in the 120 agencies because they rarely ever shrink.
“They always think bigger budgets are better outcomes,” Stitt said. By contrast, he said, more efficient budgets, employees and management are the key.
The cost of both annual audits should average to about $50,000 per agency per year, Stitt said, which should just be built into their annual line-item budget.
“There is an opportunity in every single agency to be more efficient. There is always an opportunity to be more efficient,” Stitt said.
As an example Stitt highlighted the Oklahoma Department of Transportation.
“We don’t have the roads and bridges that other states do. We don’t have as high a quality. So I know there is waste because we’re spending the same amount of money that every other state does,” Stitt said.
He said there are similar issues in education and corrections.
“We are doing things wrong, and when I look at our competition it is very easy to see,” Stitt said. “My five pillars are a growth plan, education, health, infrastructure and efficiencies. I think in those areas there is waste and that a true CEO can get that fixed.”
Stitt is firmly planted on “No new taxes.”
“If I’ve got a bucket with holes in it, the first thing I’ve got to do is plug the holes before I put more water in that bucket,” he said.
The state budget is another example of the structural changes and reforms Stitt hopes to implement.
Only when the waste issues are solved will Stitt consider expanding the tax base. Temporarily, he is happy with the additional $1.3 billion revenue surplus this year.
“It’s a zero sum game at the end of the day,” Stitt said. “Meaning the revenue that we have in our state is about what other states around have with similar size and populations. We actually spend $1,500 more in Oklahoma than they spend in Texas per person.”
“If we’re not beating Texas in roads and bridges and we’re not beating Texas in education than we’re doing something wrong. Than it’s a structural problem.”
“Education is the reason I’m running for Governor,” Stitt said. “In the Stitt administration, we’ve got to be top 10 in education.”
One of the primary issues, Stitt said, is that common education isn’t preparing students for the workforce.
“Right now everything is so siloed. The career techs aren’t talking to the colleges, the colleges aren’t talking to the career techs,” Stitt said.
Stitt noted that only about half of all public high school students go to college, but that state standards force schools to push all their students down that path.
“Talking to manufacturers and business owners all over the state, their telling me ‘We can’t find enough welders. We can’t find enough machinists.’ And then they tell me a welder can make $100,000 and a machinist can make $90,000,” Stitt said. “We have got to start aligning industry and the jobs of the future with our common ed and our career techs so kids know that there are fantastic careers out there if they don’t have the ability or the want-to to go to higher ed.”
Another issue for Stitt is how education is funded.
“InOklahoma,we’ve heard our whole lives, the casinos were going to fix education, the lottery was going to fix education, liquor by the drink, there’s all these things over the last 30-40 years that they’ve tried to say was going to fix education,” Stitt said.
New sources of revenue haven’t helped, Stitt said, because of the funding equalization formula.
The equalization formula is a method of funding school districts across the state equally by calculating a school’s local sources of revenue such as property taxes and then subtracting that from the money allocated to the district.
In effect, communities that invest more in their schools at a local level see their state aid proportionally decreased.
“That needs to be readdressed,” Stitt said. “We need more competition and more incentive for Claremore to do more with their dollars and keep more of their dollars in Claremore.”
The other structural issue Stitt highlighted was the requirement for two different funding buckets.
“You’ve got capital improvement bucket, money you can spend on new building,and you’ve got operations bucket, money you can spend on paper, books, salaries,” Stitt said. “Other states combine those two buckets better than we do in Oklahoma, and they allow the local school districts to spend it how they need to spend it.”
And for teachers ... “There are a lot of levers in common education, but we’ve got to promote teachers. We’ve got to attract the best and brightest to this profession. And I want to pay teachers competitive wages.”
“You can’t set the salaries from the state legislature,” Stitt said. Part of his platform is to give control of how teachers are paid to the individual counties and school districts.
The issue with having education in the state structured as it is, for Stitt, is the administration cost.
“Other states are doing a better job getting dollars in the classroom, dollars into the teachers hands, versus we spend 45 percent or more on administration costs in our state,” Stitt said.
Unlike other politicians, who have suggested condensing smaller school districts and reducing the number of superintendents, Stitt said, “That would be a local, county decision to me. I think there is fantastic smaller school districts out there ... In tweaking the funding formula, that is not an Oklahoma City decision. It’s a Claremore and Rogers County decision.”
Among other top issues in the state for Stitt is health care, from funding Medicaid to supporting rural hospitals.
“Medicaid is the state run program, and we have been cutting benefits and cutting reimbursement rates to our nursing homes, to our rural hospitals, that’s got to stop,” Stitt said.
As previously stated, his main avenue of recourse is looking for and cutting out waste and abuse.
“We’ve got to get the people off the system that should- n’t be on it, get the economy going,” Stitt said. “There is not one lever here, I’m talking about a lot of things, because we can’t cut reimbursements to the people we have to take care of.”
“As Governor I’ll make sure that we are funding Medicaid properly, or we’re going to run out of providers in our rural hospitals and in our nursing homes, taking care of the most vulnerable.”
Stitt said he is optimistic about recent actions taken by the insurance commissioner to promote competition in rural hospitals and insurance providers.
“I’ve been a lifelong Republican. I voted for Trump and donated to Trump’s campaign,” Stitt said, confronting rumors about his voting record. “I haven’t been as engaged as I wanted. I admit it, I’m not a politician.”
“There are plenty of people at 23rd and Lincoln that have never missed a vote in the last 20 years, and I’ve been building my company and creating jobs. I should have been more involved, but it’s absolutely not true that I haven’t voted,” Stitt said.
To potential voters making their final decisions before the run-off election Tuesday, Stitt said, “If you’re ready for change. If you’re ready for an outsider. If you’re ready to be top 10. Then you need to get the vote out on August 28.”