OKLAHOMA CITY — Gov. Kevin Stitt outlined a plan Monday to recruit businesses and workers that want to move out of states with prolonged coronavirus closures and high tax rates.
But the Republican governor said during his annual State of the State address that “the most pressing issue for” Oklahoma’s future during the 2021 legislative session is navigating the U.S. Supreme Court’s McGirt v. Oklahoma ruling that found the Muskogee Creek Nation’s reservation was never disestablished for criminal jurisdiction.
He said there are questions that must be resolved with tribes about who will regulate agriculture, water, energy and zoning along with whether tribal members living in eastern Oklahoma must pay sales and personal income taxes.
Hundreds of millions in tax revenue is potentially at stake, Stitt said.
Also, hundreds of criminal cases have been dismissed because state courts can no longer prosecute crimes committed by or against Oklahomans who are also tribal members, he said.
Stitt called on tribal leaders to join him to create certainty, fairness and unity.
“Where we go from here will define the state’s future,” Stitt said. “We have a shared responsibility to live as one Oklahoma regardless of your race or where you live. We drive on the same roads, our kids go to the same school, and we benefit from the same programs.”
Monday’s speech marked Stitt’s third State of the State address. The annual address, which both outlines Stitt’s priorities and officially kicked off the first day of the four-month legislative session, had a different look than in past years.
In a bid to ensure social distancing, legislative leaders closed the speech to the public, opting to allow only lawmakers, invited guests and select media members to attend. Everyone else was told to watch remotely.
Most Democratic lawmakers, meanwhile, opted not to sit on the House floor as usual. They instead sat in the balcony to avoid crowds. On the chamber floor, nearly two dozen Republican lawmakers opted not to wear face coverings despite a mask mandate for Capitol visitors and staff.
Stitt’s speech also focused on the impact of COVID-19 on schools and communities and the steps taken to combat it, as well as the path forward.
While acknowledging more than 3,000 Oklahomans have died from COVID-19 in 11 months, Stitt said Oklahoma has thrived economically under his plan to fully reopen for business starting last June 1 — much earlier than most other parts of the country. He said the decision benefited Oklahoma’s small businesses, led to lower unemployment rates and left state coffers in a much better place financially compared to other states.
Stitt said he wants to continue to build on that momentum and use the largest Republican legislative supermajority in state history to continue efforts to cut regulation and grow the state’s economy.
He promised that Republican lawmakers will keep taxes low and protect Oklahoma’s oil and gas industry from “radical liberals in Washington.”
Stitt said his agenda, which he’s nicknamed “The People’s Agenda,” has three main pillars:
• Make Oklahoma a top ten state for business.
• Deliver taxpayers more for their money.
• Invest in "our fellow Oklahomans."
“What we need is more taxpayers, not more taxes,” Stitt said.
He said Oklahoma has been recruiting businesses, particularly from states that are keeping companies locked down and “dictating their citizens’ personal freedoms.” He said he is targeting companies in California that want out of what he called that state's “anti-business policies” in exchange for a lower costs of doing business.
He also pledged to invest in innovation by using business accelerators for entrepreneurs and supporting startups.
Stitt’s staff also said he plans to ask lawmakers to allocate $15 million as an incentive to recruit to the state people who can work remotely. Stitt said he would like to allocate $5 million each to Tulsa and Oklahoma City. The remaining $5 million would be divided between the rest of the state.
Sen. Minority Leader Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City, said afterward that Monday’s address makes it clear that fighting COVID-19 remains the state’s most urgent priority.
“This is critical to the health and safety of all Oklahomans and to jump-start our state’s economy,” she said.
She also said Stitt and the Legislature must ensure state agencies have all necessary resources to defeat the pandemic, including funding for personal protective equipment, testing and vaccine distribution.
“Getting the pandemic under control is critical to efforts to safely reopen our public schools,” she said. “We all agree students learn best in the classroom, but we need to make sure our school districts have the funding necessary to protect students, teachers, support staff and their families.”
Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, Senate president pro tem, said he appreciated the optimism of Stitt’s speech.
“Senate Republicans are ready to work with the governor and our House colleagues to help Oklahoma rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic, grow and diversify our economy, help state government deliver services more efficiently to taxpayers and invest in the people of Oklahoma,” Treat said in a statement.
House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, said Stitt’s leadership has Oklahoma positioned for success this session.
“The governor will find strong support in the House for keeping the economy open, resuming in-person school, empowering parents and improving school finances,” he said.
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at email@example.com.