Oklahoma’s Governor, Lt. Governor Share Lessons Learned, Victories Earned in First Year
In January, Oklahoma swore in its two new leaders in Gov. Kevin Stitt and Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell, starting a new phase for politics in Oklahoma.
During his campaign, Kevin cast himself as a political outsider and pledged to bring his business background into play when running the state.
In his inaugural address, Kevin emphasized how he would bring both Republicans and Democrats to the table, saying Oklahoma pride, not partisanship, would moving the state forward.
In his first session as Oklahoma’s governor, Kevin has moved fast on some bills he championed. He signed the permitless carry bill early on and passed the agency accountability bills in March, giving him the authority to hire and fire certain agency heads.
For the new governor, hitting the ground running was a theme.
“It’s just been such an honor to be governor. I came from the private sector, and I’m just like everybody else. I’m an Oklahoma boy that grew up here and went to college here, and it’s been fantastic but a learning experience,” he says.
“I’m actually bringing people together. And since I didn’t come from the political world, I think I had an advantage of just a kind of bringing the House and the Senate together and negotiate. We’re doing some amazing things that people tell me have never been done before.”
One of Kevin’s biggest victories his first session was to pass the agency accountability bill.
“That was a monumental bill. It’s going to change the way that we run state government for the next 50 years because before, the governor didn’t have any authority to really run these agencies,” he says. “So the top five agencies were run by unelected people that were on these boards for nine years in some cases. Now we’re going to be able to actually deliver services and run agencies properly. That’s a big game-changer.”
One of the biggest surprises he found as governor was the sheer number of people he meets an talks to daily. From public speaking events to constituents, Kevin discovered that being accessible to the public was a bigger responsibility than he imagined.
“I really look at my job as being the chief executive, so it’s all about getting the right team and hiring the right people. So I’ve got a full-time recruiter, and I’ve got folks that are going out and doing national searches to bring the right people into these agencies,” he says. “I’ve spent a lot of time getting the right secretaries for my cabinet. One of the first things I did was hired a chief operating officer, a COO, and no other [Oklahoma] governor has ever done that.”
The digital transformation in the state agencies was also a major goal for Kevin, saying the move was critical to bring technology throughout state government as well. He also plans to continue the fight to fund education sustainably and institute criminal justice reforms.
“You’ve heard me say I want Oklahoma to be a top 10 state. I think we can be. I think we don’t have any different issues in our state than they have in any other state,” he says. “We all want the same things. We all want the best schools for our kids. We want the best roads and bridges. We want the best health care system. And so how do we get there? Let’s do the right thing. I’m trying to bring people together and say, ‘Listen, we’ve got to focus on what’s best for Oklahoma, good government and not what’s best for just this building.’ One of the first things I did was stop the lobbyists. It was unpopular in this building because the lobbyists take them to dinner, hang out and do all those things. But the people back home, they think it’s ridiculous that this agency hires a lobbyist. So I put an end to all that.”
Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell
When Oklahoma businessman Matt Pinnell swore in earlier this year as Oklahoma’s lieutenant governor, he had a list of priorities he wanted to address for the state. However, almost immediately after taking office, he was named Secretary of Tourism and Branding and tasked with the job of attracting more lucrative tourism dollars into the economy.
Diversifying Oklahoma’s economy by fostering entrepreneurship, growing small businesses and attracting tourism were key priorities for Matt.
“For Oklahoma to be positioned to be a top 10 state, we have to diversify our economy in Oklahoma. As I said on the campaign trail, we will always be an oil and gas state, but the oil and gas industry would love for us to be more diversified as well because if the price of oil tanks, then most of the time we just look to the oil and gas industry for a check,” he says. “We’ve got to get out of that cycle. I commend the governor of being very dedicated to making sure that our emergency fund, our rainy day fund, does have a sufficient amount of money in it so that if the price of oil does tank, we are prepared.”
After being named as Secretary of Tourism and Branding, Matt was also able to study how Oklahoma could become a powerhouse in the recreation and tourism sector.
“So a lot of that first month for me was getting over into a much larger agency than I thought it was,” he says. “I’m extremely blessed that I’m able to be in a creative space as Secretary of Tourism and Branding because we just launched a rebrand on the state of Oklahoma,” he says. “It was put together by 100 of the most creative minds from around the state. Where it starts with me is doubling down on our greatest strengths when it comes to tourism.”
Matt says Route 66 through Oklahoma needs to be promoted more aggressively, as does agritourism in the state.
“Agritourism is one of the fastest growing cottage industries inside the tourism department as a whole,” he says. “People want to know where their food is coming from today, more than really any time in our nation’s history. So one of the first phone calls that I made was reaching out to our agritourism division inside the Department of Ag.”
Dedicating more funding to tourism marketing is one of the top goals Matt has in order to boost those dollars in the state. A week before spring break, Oklahoma dedicated $2 million for a spring campaign.
“I don’t believe that we’re dedicating enough dollars to our marketing efforts. For every dollar you spend on tourism advertising, you get about $8 back, so your return on that investment is huge,” he says. ”Over the summer, I’m going to be meeting with legislators specific to our state park system in Oklahoma. We have got to put a long-term funding plan together for our state parks.”
Matt says the new leadership’s biggest victory was opening the lines of communications with legislators, both Republican and Democrat.
“I really think the biggest victory for us was developing better relationships with members on both sides of the aisle inside this building. I think that’s going to pay off for us for the next four years,” he says. “Inside this building, it’s about relationships and building trust and building relationships with members first.”
Education funding and policy will continue to be a challenge for the state, but he says innovation will play a key role.
“I believe moving forward, we took some good steps this session on education, but education will continue to be an area that will be debated,” he says. “And I’m glad it will be. We need to continue to have various very serious conversations about and empower education and organizations so that we can be a top 10 education state.”