When you’ve got a big lead in the last quarter, most teams play it safe, run out the clock, and take the win. For Gov. Kevin Stitt, this year’s state legislative session, his fourth, is the last quarter he’ll play before facing reelection. If you believe the recent poll numbers, Stitt has built a big lead heading into the campaign season.
But his political fortunes appear even brighter than the prognosticators indicate. Even with the continuing pall cast by the coronavirus and the economic anxiety caused by rising inflation, both the state’s job and revenue base are growing rapidly, throwing off record amounts of cash, affording the governor and a Legislature dominated by his party promising opportunities to cut taxes or increase spending on popular programs. In addition to this charmed fiscal environment, you couldn’t invent a better political landscape for a Republican incumbent, as it appears likely that most Oklahoma voters intend to punish a Democratic president they increasingly dislike.
Most political professionals would counsel Stitt to do the political equivalent of running the football to rack up first downs and keep your opponent off the field. All you need to do is use the mound of revenue to pile up easy victories. Spend more money on education, especially for teacher pay hikes, and also increase spending on infrastructure, especially to improve roads and bridges. Cut a few select taxes, especially those called for by the business establishment, who will confirm these incentives will create a specific and impressive-sounding number of jobs. But, because you need to appear to be a careful steward of the public fisc, you should make sure that you save enough of the cash to put a good chunk into savings. You might have a few negotiating skirmishes here and there with legislative leaders, but they will largely be delighted with your safe agenda – they, after all, have to run for reelection too.
A cursory look at this week’s State of the State speech would lead voters to believe Gov. Stitt has decided to take the road most traveled. After proudly pointing to the state’s record low unemployment rate and 40,000 new jobs, he called for more spending on education, transportation, and economic development. As expected, he also made clear that spending increases must be sufficiently modest to allow a large deposit to state savings.
But Stitt did not just cruise down the smooth political road – he chose to veer off and enter rougher political country. Instead of simply appeasing his most dangerous organized opposition, the public education establishment, with more dollars, Stitt forcefully advocated the two policies the education bureaucrats hate the most – empowering parents to choose the best schooling for their children and instituting a serious plan to pay high-performing teachers more than their ineffective colleagues. On the fiscal end, instead of just doling out tax favors to well-heeled business interests, Stitt called for the elimination of the state sales tax on groceries. The chamber of commerce types who fund campaigns may not care that much about this kind of relief, but the working class and poor will.
We’ll see if Republican legislative leaders will be willing to follow Stitt down this bumpier road. But the one thing we’ve learned for sure is Stitt doesn’t intend, either this session or in a second term, to surrender his quest for fundamental policy reform.
Andrew Spiropoulos is the Robert S. Kerr, Sr. Professor of Constitutional Law at Oklahoma City University and the Milton Friedman Distinguished Fellow at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and should not be attributed to either institution.