OKLAHOMA CITY — The newly elected speaker of the Republican-controlled House vowed Tuesday to prioritize increasing public school funding, reforming criminal justice and giving the state’s next governor more power.
“More common sense, more hope, more opportunity,” said House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, as he was elected to a second term as leader of the state House. “That is what Oklahoma should be about.”
McCall said when he was first elected two years ago, the Legislature faced “crushing budget deficits” of $1.3 billion and public school teachers hadn’t had a raise in nearly a decade.
But as he accepted the gavel again Tuesday, McCall said the state is expecting a surplus in excess of $500 million. The speaker also said Oklahoma is able to pay educators an average of $6,100 more, thanks to the hard work of state leaders who compromised and came together to do what’s best for the state.
“Today looks brighter than when I first accepted this gavel,” he said.
He said his top priority would be to continue to invest in public education.
“We have made great progress over the past year increasing teacher pay and funding for our schools, but our work is not done,” he said. “We must continue to invest, increase teacher pay and make Oklahoma’s school children the top priority.”
McCall said he plans to ensure that Oklahoma’s teacher pay is top in the region.
In addition, he said he wants to work on expanding the state’s economy.
It’s also imperative to give newly elected Kevin Stitt, who becomes the next governor Monday, the tools the Republican leader needs to reform the executive branch, including the authority to hire and fire agency directors.
“This will provide an unprecedented level of accountability, and the people of Oklahoma deserve it,” McCall said.
Oklahomans have also made it clear that they want violent criminals behind bars, not the low-level offenders struggling with addiction, he said.
“Oklahomans want us to protect their families, not punish people who face the challenges of poverty, mental health illness or other barriers to success,” he said.
While the state has made significant progress pushing rehabilitation over incarceration, more work remains, McCall said.
House Democrats, though, said it was time for a change at the top as they unsuccessfully tried to nominate Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman, for the speakership.
State Rep. Regina Goodwin, D-Tulsa, said hospitals and nursing homes are closing. The state should expand Medicaid to give insurance coverage to 300,000 more Oklahomans.
Prisons are overpopulated and understaffed. And the employees who do work at them are underpaid, Goodwin said.
Families are being split up with unfair criminal justice laws that require reform, she said.
“We have Oklahomans who are piecing together odd jobs and part-time work to make a living because careers are scarce and (there are) not very many opportunities in the communities,” she said.
Across the Capitol rotunda, state senators selected Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, to serve as the next president pro tem of that chamber.
After the vote, Treat said his caucus hadn’t released its official agenda yet, but she said lawmakers plan to be proactive.
“We are very supportive of trying to make sure that the chief executive can run more of state government (and) very interested in making sure we have budget transparency and reform,” he said. “And making sure that we continue to fund education to the agreed-upon amount.”
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.