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Governor highlights budget priorities

By Steve Metzer

The Journal Record

OKLAHOMA CITY – Gov. Kevin Stitt touched on several issues related to the state budget being hammered out for next year when he met for about 20 minutes Thursday with reporters at the state Capitol.

Stitt said he remains convinced of the need for a $1,200 across-the-board pay raise for teachers and that increases for other state employees also are among priorities of officials contributing to budget talks.

“I expect us to have a budget negotiated by early next week,” Stitt said. “I don’t know how much they want me to discuss actual numbers, but education is going to be very, very happy I believe. I believe we need to have another pay raise for our teachers, and I’m excited to deliver on that.”

The governor said efforts also are being made to ensure that pay for corrections officers and other state employees is “up to market.”

“We’re actually talking about that right now. I don’t know if it will be $2,500.” – as has been proposed by the Oklahoma Public Employees Association.

Stitt said another priority has been to come up with a comprehensive plan to improve access to medical coverage for Oklahomans who can’t afford health insurance. He said he remains opposed to accepting federal funds to expand Medicaid in Oklahoma by simply following a federal formula.

“I’m not for Medicaid expansion the way it’s written, but I can’t just say to Oklahomans, ‘Don’t vote for it. I’m against it.’ I’ve got to say ‘Here’s a better plan.’ It’s a big, big issue and a big part of our budget that I’m going to deliver for Oklahomans, but I’m not ready to roll that plan out today.”

The governor said the “Oklahoma Plan” likely will be delivered in the fall and may include agency reform and some consolidation of agencies as well as strategies to improve health care delivery through options like telemedicine. He said the plan should include better capturing and utilization of federal dollars.

“Federal dollars are going to be part of that conversation for sure… I don’t think we do it as efficiently as we could. We leave some money on the table,” he said. “(But), it’ll be more about delivering services to rural communities and what’s going to be sustainable for the next 20 years… I’ve got over 100 people working with me across the state to come up with a plan. I think it’s long overdue. We need to look at the department of health and how we can deliver services there, how we can work with rural hospitals (and assess) what we need in rural communities versus urban communities. I’m not prepared to roll the whole plan out, but that’s what we’re working on.”

As budget talks continue, Stitt said he also considers it important to increase the amount of savings the state can bank for times when tax revenues decline.

“It’s my four-year goal to have $2 billion in savings,” he said. “Other states have significant savings. When I got here, we only had $422 million in our savings account, (so) it’s very important …when we think about this budget process not just to think about what you have to spend in your checking account today. You’ve got to think about next year, and the year after to make sure we never have to cut core services.”

Stitt also answered to some criticism leveled by lawmakers who have said they’ve been denied access to financial information of state agencies, which has made it difficult for them to form judgments on the budget.  Friction was apparent on Wednesday as senators met with Stitt’s nominee to be the state’s budget secretary, former state Sen. Michael Mazzei.

“Unfortunately, at this time of the year there are sometimes disagreements or egos might get in the way,” Stitt said. “Yesterday, unfortunately some personality issues I think got the better of some folks and came out in a confirmation hearing. We are trying to be transparent. We are trying to make sure they have access to every single state agency and whatever oversight they need. What we won’t allow is (for people) to go straight to our cabinet secretaries in the middle of budget negotiations when they’re maybe trying to advocate for some pet projects that they’re working on individually. You’ve got to have our budget folks in the room if you’re talking budgets with one of our secretaries.”

The governor otherwise described a “great relationship” he has with the Senate and House and a general feeling of optimism at the Capitol. He did allow that he’s been disappointed that Democrats declined to support “transparency” bills passed this year that give the governor more authority to hire and fire state agency heads, and that members of the minority party have recently declined to carry his nominations of people to take seats on the Oklahoma Board of Education.

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