By Steve Metzer
The Journal Record
OKLAHOMA CITY – Oklahoma will surpass its “historic high water mark” for money dedicated to public education in the coming fiscal year, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt said Friday.
Stitt met with leading lawmakers at the Capitol to go over accomplishments of the legislative session and to sign Oklahoma’s fiscal year 2020 budget, which includes $8.1 billion in total spending.
Stitt said the state will spend more than $3 billion on common education in the coming year, about $538 million more than what was spent in 2009, the previous record year for education funding. He counted pay raises provided for teachers for the second year in a row, along with some $74 million added to funding for school districts across the state, among the biggest accomplishments of the legislative session.
“This is going to go a long way toward letting teachers know how valued they are,” the governor said. “We value education in Oklahoma.”
There were other big accomplishments, Stitt said.
“This year’s budget was truly historic,” he said. “We broke several records for funding core services and put Oklahoma on a fantastic platform for having $1 billion in savings by the end of next year, which would be a historic high.”
For the second year in a row, pay raises also are in store for state employees. Plans made by the Oklahoma Department of Transportation to build and maintain roads and bridges are fully funded, the governor said. Some $30 million also has been earmarked for spending on county roads. Stitt said money dedicated to “digital modernization” of government and to the state’s Quick Action Closing Fund to stimulate economic investment also will move the state forward.
“This is so important for the state to compete and win as we grow our economy (and) compete with other states for companies to move in,” he said. “It’s been a fantastic session.”
Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat agreed.
“This session has been by far the most productive that I’ve been involved in since 2011,” he said.
Treat described “government accountability” legislation, including creation of the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency and bills passed giving the governor authority to hire and fire leaders of state agencies, as other major achievements.
“It was landmark reform that will change the way we do government in Oklahoma,” he said. “Next session, I think, will be even better because we’ve put ourselves on a trajectory to be more fiscally responsible.”
Speaker of the House Charles McCall said it was remarkable that the governor, administration officials, lawmakers and other leaders were able to craft a robust budget while at the same time setting $200 million aside in savings. The Atoka Republican said he especially appreciated the savings as well as investments made in county roads, hospitals, small-town nursing homes, schools and pay raises for state employees, all of which will benefit rural parts of the Sooner State.
“I think this year has been a tremendous year for the state of Oklahoma,” McCall said. “Our state has never been more sound, more solid … and we will build off that. I think we can make it even better.”
Senate Minority Leader Kay Floyd was not at Friday’s signing ceremony, but she did address the budget in a meeting with reporters on Thursday. She said people should not forget the hard decisions that had to be made last year, after years of budget troubles and cuts, to raise the state’s income.
“This session we were in a better position, I think, to meet needs because we passed revenue-raising measures last session,” Floyd said.
She noted, however, that the Oklahoma Department of Education had asked for even more funding than it received to make up for years of budget cuts. She pointed out, too, that access to health care, especially by rural Oklahomans, continues to stand out as a need that needs to be addressed.
“We were disappointed that health care was not completely addressed this session. We’re still hopeful that Medicaid expansion will be a topic of discussion going forward. We’re coming up on close to $1 billion of our money that has gone out to the federal government that would have come back had we expanded Medicaid, and I think the majority of Oklahomans, when they realize that are saying ‘We want our money back.’”
The governor was asked on Friday if accepting some $900 million in federal funding in exchange for a commitment of $100 million by the state to expand Medicaid was still a possibility. He responded that it isn’t.
“The right solution is not just straight-up Medicaid expansion,” Stitt said. “We’ve got more than 100 Oklahomans meeting on a regular basis, offering ideas about a plan on improving health care. Health care is such an important part of state government, and our goal is to deliver a plan by October.”
Stitt and other leaders said they’ll also continue to focus on criminal justice reform in Oklahoma. Last week, the governor issued an executive order to form a Criminal Justice Reentry, Supervision, Treatment and Opportunity Reform Task Force to delve into the criminal code, diversion programs, victims’ rights and the state’s prison system.
“We can create bold change that will offer our fellow citizens a second chance while also keeping our communities and streets safe,” he said. “My administration remains committed to changing our state’s No. 1 incarceration ranking.”