Kevin Stitt began his tenure as governor one year ago Tuesday full of energy and ambition.
Nothing yet has taken the wind out of his sails.
“I’d give myself an ‘A’ at this point,” Stitt said in a telephone interview last week. “We can always do better, but I’m really proud of what our team has accomplished.”
Stitt and his administration did have a pretty good run of successes in its first year. On this occasion, Stitt mentioned teacher pay, roads and bridges, and government transparency, but he could also have listed government reorganization and criminal justice reform.
For gun rights advocates, there was the permitless carry bill, the first Stitt signed as governor. And he was able to carry through with his determination to hold back, above and beyond the state’s constitutional reserve fund, $200 million available for appropriation.
But few victories are total or without reservation.
A lot of toes were mashed in the stampede to give Stitt more administrative power than any Oklahoma governor has ever had.
Even more were mashed when he decided in mid-year to take on the state’s Indian tribes over gaming — a move he says he does not regret in the least.
Permitless carry was and is bitterly opposed by a significant segment of the population. Some saw the teacher pay raise as more of a figurative photo op than real reform of education funding.
And the nonrecommendations issued last week by Stitt’s task force on criminal justice reform suggest to some that he’s ready to declare victory on that issue and move on.
Stitt, though, is judging results by a broader measure.
“I really feel like we’ve changed the momentum and the direction and the attitude and the outlook in Oklahoma,” he said. “The things we’re doing, the communications, the working with the state agencies, bringing them together for leadership training, it’s just been going great as we’re digging in and setting a vision and goals for them to become top 10 in whatever they’re working on.”
In Stitt’s view, the state’s frame of mind seems to be of utmost importance.
“Oklahomans elected me to look at things differently,” he said, “to bring a fresh approach, a business approach, to state government, and not to recycle the same-old same-old. To do that I had to bring in a lot of new faces, new leaders, people with fresh ideas. That’s what we’re doing. And you see it working.
“Not that I’m 100% right or anything like that, but you have to have one single strategy,” he said. “You’ve got to have somebody who can pull it all together. … That’s why I really focused on getting the structure right.”
Just months in office, Stitt persuaded legislative leaders to give him direct control of five of the largest state agencies — the Health Care Authority, Corrections, Human Services, Juvenile Affairs, and Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.
Stitt replaced three of those five agency heads and the leadership in a total of 18 state agencies. State Chancellor Glen Johnson agreed to retire at the end of this year following a very public campaign by Stitt to pressure him out.
Stitt said gaining even greater control over state agencies is one of his priorities for the coming year. He’s made it clear he intends to exert influence on the selection of Johnson’s successor and says he’d like the state superintendent of public instruction to become an appointed rather than elected official.
“Making the change inside the agencies is really hard,” he said. “They’re used to doing things a certain way. … Sometimes you have to talk to boards and commissions and explain to them that we’re not moving the needle in this agency they’re overseeing so we’ve got to change the direction or the director.”
Stitt’s first year was made easier by the easing of a financial crisis that had afflicted state government for years. His second budget is expected to be much tighter as revenue to the state slows.
Stitt, though, does not seem too concerned about maintaining momentum as he heads into his second year.
“A lot of agency accountability and delivery of services is more management,” he said. “I’m not overly concerned about not being able to keep up with some of my agenda items. The criminal justice stuff is more looking at the criminal code and bail reform and sentencing reform all together.”
Stitt said the administration is still “kind of fine tuning” plans for 2020 but said “health care is going to be a big topic that I’m going to be working on. More regulatory reform. I’m really excited about some of the things we’re doing on the regulatory side. And we’ll continue to have agency accountability language that we’ll be promoting this year.”
Gallery: Breaking down Stitt’s first year in office