As February begins, so too does another legislative session in Oklahoma. This year I had the honor of giving my fourth State of the State address, delivering my executive budget and outlining an agenda for forward progress and economic growth.
These are the topics I addressed and the priorities I believe our legislative session should focus on.
Oklahoma’s economy has made a dramatic turnaround since the Great Recession. Our pro-growth policies are making a significant contribution to that comeback. Today, the unemployment rate has dropped from 7.2 percent to just 5.4 percent. Oklahoma families have also seen their incomes rise by over 6.3 percent since January 201l. That’s 44 percent higher than the national average and second in the nation.
We need to continue to build that forward momentum by pursuing pro-growth policies that help small businesses and the middle class.
School safety and security:
I have asked the Legislature to pass HJR 1092, a Constitutional amendment to expand the bonding capacity of local school districts in order to fund safety upgrades like storm shelters, safe rooms and precautions against dangerous intruders.
This is a responsible plan for improving safety and security at Oklahoma schools. We aren’t forcing new taxes on Oklahoma families or businesses. We aren’t passing new mandates. Most importantly, we are making our schools safer.
To improve education in Oklahoma we need two things: increased resources and better policies that support teachers and empower students and parents. My budget includes a $50 million increase in spending for K-12 education, and I remain absolutely committed to implementing important reforms that will increase school accountability and student performance.
Moving forward, I will work relentlessly on two fronts: First, we must improve K-12 public school results. Second, we have to increase the number of Oklahomans who continue their education beyond high school, either by attending college or a career technology center. A high school diploma is not enough.
“Right-sizing” State Government:
In the coming days and weeks, we know what we’ll hear. Those who like bigger government and higher taxes will say the sky is falling. Entrenched interest groups and even some agency heads may say the same thing.
But guess what? It’s not. The cuts we’ve proposed this year amount to five percent or less of agency budgets, and in total amount to about one percent of state spending. Any business worth its salt can find five percent costs savings without crippling the services it provides. State government can too.
Pension reform and employee compensation:
Our pay-system for state employees is suffering from an imbalance: we offer more generous benefits than other states and the private sector, but less pay. That’s not a good way to attract qualified workers in today’s economy. We must work to address that balance and adequately compensate our employees.
We also need to modernize our pension system. New hires within the Oklahoma Public Employees Retirement System should be moved from an outdated, mid-20th century pension system to the more portable and flexible 401k-style benefits used in the private sector.
Businesses made this change a long time ago, recognizing that the old pension model didn’t appeal to a more mobile workforce in today’s modern economy. It’s time for state government to stop playing catch-up.
We must begin repairing the People’s House now. The best, most realistic way to accomplish this is through a bond issue.
We cannot plunge this nation further into debt or place Oklahoma on a fiscally unsound path by expanding Medicaid. Both the president’s plan and alternative proposals that rely on federal dollars in the Affordable Care Act amount to the same thing: a dramatic growth in unsustainable government spending.
Washington wants to lead this nation in the wrong direction – but Oklahomans will not be led astray. We will find our own way forward.
I believe responsibly lowering the income tax is the right thing to do. This is the people’s money; it should stay with the people. It is the people and the private sector, not state government, that are the true engines of job creation. When we lower taxes we allow them to invest in their businesses, spend dollars in the economy, and help to create Oklahoma jobs. That’s why I am asking the Legislature to support a .25 percent reduction in the state income tax.