Governor Kevin Stitt
By: Constitution Staff
On January 14, J. Kevin Stitt was inaugurated as the 28th governor of the State of Oklahoma. He replaces Governor Mary Fallin who was prohibited by term-limits from seeking a third four-year term in 2018. With the seat open for the first time in eight years, 15 candidates entered the race last year, including ten Republicans, two Democrats, and three Libertarians. It was the largest field of candidates to run for the office since 1986.
The Republican and Libertarian nominees were not determined until the Runoff Primary elections on August 28. Stitt, 45, won the Republican nomination and Chris Powell, 46, won the Libertarian Party nomination. The Democrat nomination was secured in the June 26 Primary Election by former Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson, 71, who ran for governor in 2010 instead of running for reelection to a fifth term. In that race, he lost in the Democrat Primary to Lt. Gov. Jari Askins who went on to lose to Mary Fallin.
In the General Election on November 6, Stitt won the governorship with 54.33 percent of the vote. Edmondson finished second with 42.23 percent, and Powell received 3.44 percent. With 1,186,385 votes cast, the race set an Oklahoma record for a gubernatorial election. Stitt’s 644,579 votes was the most ever received by a gubernatorial candidate. The previous record was Gov. Mary Fallin’s total of 625,506 in 2010. Edmondson received 500,973 votes. Powell’s total was 40,833 votes.
While Edmondson finished first in Oklahoma County, the state’s most populous county, he only carried the vote in three other counties: Muskogee, Cleveland, and Cherokee. Edmondson barely won in Muskogee County, where he grew up and began his political career as a legislator. Stitt finished first in 73 of the state’s 77 counties, winning a majority of the vote in 71 counties and a plurality in two. Stitt’s victory stretched from each corner of the state. In Cimarron County, in the western Panhandle, Stitt received over 85 percent of vote. In McCurtain County in far southeastern Oklahoma, a part of the state formerly known as Little Dixie which had been a Democrat stronghold, Stitt won with 68 percent of the vote.
This was the most expensive race for the state’s top elective position in history. Oklahoma Ethics Commission data shows that over $21 million was raised and spent by the numerous candidates in the race. This does not include spending by outside groups, both Democrat and Republican, which supported or opposed various candidates. Stitt’s campaign contributions totaled $10.2 million, with about half coming from his own pocket. Stitt had pledged to match every dollar raised with his own personal funds. Edmondson’s contributions totaled over $3.9 million. Mick Cornet, who lost to Stitt in the Republican Runoff Primary, raised nearly $3.5 million. Lt. Governor Todd Lamb, who had been an early favorite in the race, raised over $3.7 million. He lost in the Republican Primary.
The gubernatorial election was important for the Libertarian Party. They lost their status as a recognized party in Oklahoma after their candidate in the 2000 presidential election failed to receive the required minimum of 5 percent of the vote. The party did not regain recognition until 2016, and their 2016 presidential candidate received 5.75 percent, which secured the party a place on the ballot for 2018. In order to maintain ballot status, a recognized party must now poll at least 2.5 percent of the vote for their nominee for president in the presidential election years, or their candidate for governor in gubernatorial election years. Powell’s 3.44 percent will keep the party on the ballot for the 2020 elections. Had the threshold not been lowered, the party would have again lost their ballot status.
Kevin Stitt is new to the political scene. He ran as a businessman and a political outsider. Stitt received an accounting degree from Oklahoma State University in 1996 and after graduation worked in the mortgage loan industry. He started Gateway Mortgage Group in 2000 “with only $1,000 and a computer.” Today, Gateway employs over 1,250 people, has 145 offices nationwide, is licensed in 40 states, serves 100,000 customers, and originates more than $6 billion in mortgages each year.
Stitt stepped down as CEO of Gateway in August, but continued to serve as chairman through the campaign. Following his election, he resigned all his positions in the company. Gateway is currently in the process of converting from a mortgage company to a bank and Stitt will have no role in the governing structure of the bank. If approved by federal regulators, Gateway First Bank will be one of the top 15 mortgage banks in the nation.
After the election, Governor-elect Stitt assembled Oklahoma’s Turnaround Team to develop policy proposals for the upcoming legislative session, start working on the governor’s budget proposal, and ensure an orderly transition to the new administration. The transition team worked to recruit Oklahomans to serve in the Stitt administration and to map out Oklahoma’s Turnaround with advisory committees on seven topics: Education, Economic Growth, Government Efficiency, Infrastructure, Health, Public Safety, and Native American Partnerships.
A major task for the new governor is to craft his executive budget proposal. Unlike recent legislative sessions, the new Legislature and the new governor will not have to contend with a budget shortfall. On December 19, the state Board of Equalization certified a state budget estimate of nearly $8.3 billion. This represents a $612 million increase over the amount appropriated for the current fiscal year. The governor’s budget proposal must be within the amount certified and will serve as the starting point as the Legislature embarks on the appropriation process. Budget requests from just a few of the state’s largest state agencies already far exceed the additional projected revenue. The state’s Department of Corrections is asking for $1.57 billion in new money, the Department of Education wants $440 million, and the state’s colleges and universities are seeking a $100 million increase.
Oklahoma state government operates on a fiscal year that runs from July 1 in one year, through June 30 of the next year. The current fiscal year, called Fiscal Year 2019, began July 1. The Legislature passes, and the governor approves, budget appropriations for the coming fiscal year during the legislative session which is usually completed in May. The legislative session which begins on February 4 will be making appropriations for Fiscal Year 2020 which will begin on July 1.
Stitt commented on the positive revenue projections, and cautioned legislators: “I also want to warn the Legislature and the agency heads – this is not a blank check.” Stitt said that transforming the operation of state government will be a top priority, and he is asking the Legislature for more power to hire and fire agency directors. Stitt said he was elected governor on a pledge to run government differently and to hold agencies accountable.
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