OKLAHOMA CITY — Gov. Kevin Stitt backed school vouchers, performance-based pay raises for teachers and an expansion of concurrent enrollment during his fifth State of the State address to the Legislature on Monday.
His ideas on education aren’t new. He had advocated on the campaign trail for vouchers that would send state money to private schools. Last year, a voucher bill failed to secure approval in the Senate and lacked support in the House.
But Stitt and new State Superintendent Ryan Walters are backing vouchers, also called education savings accounts.
During his 32-minute speech, the governor called for the elimination of the 4.25% state sales tax on groceries and for reducing the state’s top income tax rate to 3.99% from 4.75%.
“These cuts will save each family in Oklahoma hundreds of dollars each year,” Stitt said. “And it will continue to make Oklahoma one of the best states to live, work and raise your family.”
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Before the pandemic, a gallon of milk cost $2.90, but the price has now gone to $4.21, Stitt said.
A dozen eggs cost about $1.50 but now costs about $5.50, he said.
“We can provide families with immediate relief at the store with bigger paychecks,” Stitt said.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, was asked to weigh in on the tax-cut proposals.
“You noticed during the speech there seemed to be enthusiasm in some areas for tax cuts,” Thompson said of some fellow legislators. “I was not one of those. I think we need to take care of the needs of the people of Oklahoma as we move forward.”
Asked whether the state can afford the $655 million in tax cuts the governor proposed, Thompson said “no.”
“We’ve got a lot of issues in the state of Oklahoma we need to be addressing,” he added. “We’ve got health issues and public health emergencies going away. There’s a lot of federal money leaving the state of Oklahoma.”
Stitt also touched on what is expected to become one of the larger wedge issues of the session — transgender health care.
“We shouldn’t allow a minor to get a permanent gender-altering surgery in Oklahoma,” Stitt said. “That’s why I am calling on the Legislature to send me a bill that bans all gender-transition surgeries and hormone therapies on minors in the state.
“As governor, I will never shy away from calling out right from wrong.”
In the lead up to the governor’s speech, more than 100 people in the Capitol Rotunda chanted “trans lives matter” as part of a protest against a slate of anti-transgender bills proposed for this session. The chants echoed through the building.
Ben Patterson, an organizer of the Defend Trans Lives rally, said the event was intended to celebrate LGBTQ Oklahomans while also putting Republican lawmakers on notice that there will be opposition to bills targeting transgender people.
“We’re not going to go away anytime soon,” said Patterson, who is transgender.
Stitt also spoke on a softer note about the need for fathers to be more active in the lives of their children.
“Sadly, there has been a movement in our nation that dads are dispensable,” Stitt said. “Right now, the United States is a world leader in fatherless families. One out every four kids in American is living without a father in the home. And even those with a father are being let down.”
Stitt called for expanding and increasing fatherhood programs in communities and fostering the importance of healthy homes with two involved parents.
He singled out Marquess Dennis of Tulsa, who was in the audience. Dennis is the founder of Birthright Living Legacy, which helps fathers take more active roles in their families.
He said it is important that people understand how important both mothers and fathers are to a child.
Carmen Forman contributed to this story.