OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt hit on some familiar conservative themes during his fourth annual State of the State address on Monday, like more government efficiency and a better infrastructure and business climate. But he also gave his support to a longtime priority for Democrats — eliminating the state sales tax on groceries.
The first-term Republican, who faces reelection this year, also presented his executive budget proposal to help kick of the 2022 legislative session.
“Many Oklahomans are already struggling under the weight of record inflation,” Stitt told lawmakers. “Let’s give them more help this year. Because, after all, we need more taxpayers, not more taxes.”
Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, also has introduced a bill to abolish the state sales tax on groceries.
The state currently imposes a 4.5% sales tax on groceries. Local jurisdictions often impose additional sales taxes that can increase the tax rate on groceries to more than 10% in many communities.
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Stitt also renewed his criticism of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark court decision on criminal jurisdiction in Indian Country, known as the McGirt decision.
“From the beginning, I’ve sounded the alarm on the Supreme Court’s McGirt decision,” said Stitt, who is a member of the Cherokee Nation. “Because I knew then, and I know now, that even a narrow Supreme Court ruling can fundamentally change a state.
“Oklahoma has been robbed of the authority to prosecute crimes.”
Stitt’s comments drew immediate criticism from tribal leaders, including Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr., who urged the governor to work with tribal nations instead of constantly fighting in the courts.
“Governor Stitt prioritized creating instability across Oklahoma, with nothing to show for his quest to overturn McGirt but millions of wasted Oklahoma taxpayer dollars and lost time that could have been spent working collaboratively on our shared safety goals,” Hoskin said in a statement.
One thing Democrats noted that Stitt didn’t address in his speech was the COVID-19 pandemic, the strain it’s placed on the state’s hospital system and the more than 13,500 Oklahomans who have lost their lives as a result.
“He really didn’t have any mention of the Oklahomans we have lost since his last State of the State,” said House Minority Leader Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman. “There have been over 10,000 additional deaths since that point, but we heard no mention of that in today’s speech.
“I understand that our economy is open and the governor likes to brag about that, but the fact is many Oklahomans are still suffering from a loss … and to not mention that is unconscionable to me.”
During the speech, two women in the gallery attempted to unfurl a banner at the back of the House chamber but were stopped by security and forcibly removed.
A crowd of anti-abortion protesters also chanted outside the chamber after Stitt’s speech, urging the Legislature to outlaw abortion in Oklahoma.
Although the Legislature is expected to have a record-high $10.3 billion to appropriate for next year’s budget, about $2 billion more than was spent on the current year’s budget, Stitt and legislative leaders have both said they expect spending to remain relatively flat.
Both Stitt and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Roger Thompson have said they want to keep at least $2 billion in reserves to better position the state in case of a future economic downturn.
Among the education policy changes Stitt urged Republicans to pursue is one that would allow parents to use state tax dollars for a child’s education to follow them to another school, even a private school. The plan is likely to face extreme opposition from groups representing public educators.
Virgin, the House Democratic leader, said the plan will also face opposition from Democrats and many rural Republicans who have few private school options in their districts.
Another contentious issue that’s likely to come up early in the session is COVID-19 vaccine mandates. Although Stitt didn’t mention the issue in his speech, several Republicans have suggested a prohibition on requirements to be vaccinated to stop the spread of the disease, even for private employers, something that groups representing Oklahoma companies and businesses, including The State Chamber, has opposed.
“Obviously that’s a hot topic that many members are interested in, so I anticipate that coming up throughout the session,” Treat said. “It’s a difficult issue for people, but I think all of us have a desire to protect individual liberty and the ability of businesses to operate freely in Oklahoma, and we’ll strike a balance.”
Another contentious issue likely to spur divisions among Republicans is further loosening the state’s gun laws. The Oklahoma 2nd Amendment Association, a grassroots group that has grown politically powerful over the last several years, has successfully pushed to remove many restrictions on where firearms can be carried and on the use of deadly force.
A coalition that includes The State Chamber, an association of the state’s business and industry, along with chambers of commerce for Oklahoma City and Tulsa have said that allowing private businesses to ban firearms and keeping in place a ban on firearms on college campuses will be legislative priorities for them this year.
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