Very few of us pay enough attention to Oklahoma politics. Instead, the minority who follow politics at all generally read and write about national or international issues, about debates in Congress or the next presidential election, and we give far too little consideration to actions taken by our governor or state Legislature that have a far greater impact on our daily lives. All the issues polls tell us voters care most about, from education to law enforcement, and from health care to civil rights, are significantly shaped by politicians at the state level who carry far more responsibility for the welfare of Oklahomans than anyone in Washington, D.C., and yet we pay so little attention to them that they govern in virtual obscurity. I am as guilty as anyone of falling prey to this phenomenon, especially in my columns, which is particularly problematic because I work for the state.
And so, in the spirit of trying to do better, let us take a moment to consider two especially important events that took place in the Oklahoma State Legislature last week. The first is that legislators passed the largest budget in state history. The second is that they gave Governor Kevin Stitt a genuinely historic political beating.
The budget news alone is extraordinary. For fiscal year 2024 the State of Oklahoma will spend approximately $12.96 billion, or roughly 20 percent more than in 2023. The budget features funding increases for more than half of all state agencies, including a $130 million increase for higher education, a 21.5 percent increase in spending on common education, raises for teachers, school tax credits, an 18 percent boost for the Oklahoma Health Care Authority (which oversees state Medicare and Medicaid programs), money for school literacy, vocational education, and school safety, $215 million for affordable housing initiatives, six weeks paid maternity leave for state employees, and funds for a museum of popular culture in Tulsa, among others. It is almost double the $6.8 billion the state spent in 2012 and was passed by a Legislature dominated by Republicans over the objections of a Republican governor whose hopes for grocery tax or state income tax reductions were dashed for the second straight year.
Stitt’s defeats were even more extraordinary due to the way the Legislature dealt with the fear he would veto the budget, a tactic he has used several times in years past. To prevent a recurrence, Republicans convened a concurrent special session that would allow them to return in June — after the Legislature is normally required by law to conclude their business — and override any potential veto. And when they passed the budget with veto-proof majorities in both the House and the Senate, Stitt decided to allow the budget to become law without his signature rather than sign or veto it and face further political defeats.
The governor tried to save face by arguing the budget is irresponsible because it relies on one-time revenue for recurring expenses and draws down the state reserve from $6.2 to $4.2 billion. And he referred to the “…unique process by which the bill made its way to my desk…” — meaning the concurrent session — when explaining why the budget would become law without his support. Yet his political immolation was complete. Senate leaders dismissed his figures and stated the budget was sound, and the Legislature ignored the governor’s requests for concessions on almost every issue save state franchise taxes (which will decrease slightly) and tax breaks for joint filers.
Those gains were overshadowed by other defeats at the hands of the Legislature, however, which appears to have genuinely turned against Stitt after years of contentious haggling over state tribal compacts, funding for education, taxes, and a host of other issues. When Stitt vetoed 20 bills in April of this year the Legislature promptly overturned his veto on 13 of them. Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, a Democrat from Norman, called him “Sir Vetoes A Lot.” Sen. Chuck Hall, a Republican from Perry, said the governor had thrown a “tantrum,” leading Senate Floor Leader Greg McCartney, an Ada Republican, to refer to the vetoes as Stitt’s “tantrum 20.” Republican Sen. Julie Daniels of Bartlesville said Stitt had “ignored the authority of the Legislature,” while Sen. Todd Gollihare, a Republican from Kellyville, said Stitt had showed “no logical reason or rational thinking” when issuing vetoes of bills that would increase access to medication for overdoses, increase protection for Indigenous students seeking to wear tribal regalia at graduation, and to put Oklahoma in line with other states with regard to Name, Image, and Likeness regulations for collegiate athletes. For good measure, they also voted to extend tobacco compacts with several Native American tribes that Stitt had signaled he wanted to renegotiate.
Reasonable people may debate all of these issues. The point here is not necessarily whether the huge budget is a good idea. I would argue strongly that it is, because Oklahoma has been falling behind our peer states in almost every conceivable category relating to educational achievement, public employee salaries, health care, and many others for decades. It is long past the time we should have taken steps to address these challenges, particularly the loss of teachers and law enforcement professionals to other states.
The larger issue in all of this, however, is the dysfunction in Oklahoma City. The state Legislature just rendered the governor politically impotent, and while we can agree or disagree over the choices the Republican super-majority made, we should realize the entire concept of a balance of power in state government just took a hit. This year’s budget is either a sign that the Legislature is out of control or that the governor is unable to negotiate or compromise effectively.
One party rule, it seems, does not always mean smooth sailing in politics.
Lance Janda holds a PhD in History from the University of Oklahoma and has more than 30 years of experience in higher education. He is the author of “Stronger Than Custom: West Point and the Admission of Women”, among other works.