OKLAHOMA CITY — When newly elected Gov. Kevin Stitt takes the reins of Oklahoma’s government later this month, observers say he’ll face some challenges that will need to be quickly addressed.
From finances to lingering economic issues to stubborn agency heads that he’ll find difficultly controlling, the political novice will likely have his hands full in the first months of his term, observers said.
Stitt will officially be sworn in as the state’s next governor Jan. 14.
The Republican governor-elect will immediately face a learning curve about the realities of the state budget, its revenue streams and how its expenses work, said state Rep. David Perryman, D-Chickasha.
While Stitt seems to be banking on $612 million in extra revenue to spend in 2019, Perryman said there will likely be less available as oil prices continue to drop and tax collections don’t meet expectations.
In addition, Stitt campaigned on the promise that he’d cut waste from government, Perryman said.
“I think that he believes basically the rhetoric that there’s waste in government and that we are going to be able to recognize savings and move monies around for instance, for education, out of the savings found,” Perryman said. “That’s just rhetoric. I think he’s a pragmatic guy. I hope he is.”
Perryman said Stitt will discover that state government is actually pretty efficient and there’s not going to be much bloat.
“I don’t want him to fail,” Perryman said. “What he’s doing is basically the same thing that Gov. Fallin was doing, which is basically not really looking at reality, but rhetoric instead. When you do that, you kind of end up in the mess we’re in.”
A Stitt spokeswoman declined to comment.
David Blatt, executive director with the liberal-leaning Oklahoma Policy Institute, said there are long-standing problems that Stitt will need to solve.
Nearly 1 in 5 Oklahoma children lives in poverty, and too many families struggle to afford healthcare, child care and higher education expenses, he said. In addition, public school classrooms are overcrowded.
“I think it’s more problems that we have long-failed to address in this state that is leaving too many Oklahomans behind,” Blatt said.
Stitt will need to develop a purposeful strategy that creates broad-based opportunities to benefit all Oklahomans, he said.
“I think he has to really kind of think long term about the investments that need to be made that will actually promote Oklahoman’s health, security (and) expand economic opportunity across the population,” Blatt said.
But Blatt said Stitt has an advantage. He’ll start his term leading a state in relatively strong financial shape.
“I think we made real progress last year in getting our financial house in order, and all signs are pointing towards healthy revenue growth next year, which will create some real opportunities,” he said.
Still, the top priority for Stitt — and the Legislature — should be fixing the state’s “very unworkable system” that gives the governor little authority to pick agency directors, said Jonathan Small, president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative-leaning think tank.
“There are agency directors who disagree with the perspective of the majority of voters in Oklahoma and the vision that was cast by Gov. Stitt,” Small said.
The Legislature must give Stitt more authority — and quickly — to pick who works for him. Under the current system, boards appoint many agency heads. That makes it easy to deflect blame and difficult to hold people accountable for any dysfunction, Small said.
“I think giving the governor the ability to pick and appoint managers … is something that we hope happens quickly and it needs to happen,” Small said. “We’ve seen it work across the country and even work in Oklahoma.”
Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.