In recent years, Oklahoma’s state government has played a vital supporting role to the private sector, helping to promote a business friendly environment that has lead to a net gain of over 62,000 jobs created since 2011. Unemployment is down, median income is rising, and the state Rainy Day savings account has gone from $2.03 to almost $600 million.
My role as governor is to keep the pedal to the metal, so to speak, and ensure that Oklahoma is well positioned in a national and international economy that is more competitive than ever.
In this year’s State of the State address, I outlined an agenda for the coming legislative session that will help to continue Oklahoma’s remarkable economic growth and job creation.
That starts with examining our tax climate. In today’s increasingly mobile society, businesses and individuals are leaving states with high taxes and moving to friendlier locations. Oklahoma needs to be at the top of their list. For that reason, I am committed to the gradual reduction of our state income tax. This year I have proposed a responsible, measured income tax cut of 0.25 percent that allows Oklahomans to keep more of their hard-earned money.
We also need to improve our schools, so that Oklahoma is producing the kind of highly skilled, highly educated workforce that can attract and retain high paying jobs. In recent years, the Legislature has passed – and I have signed into law – important reform measures designed to raise the bar on academic achievement and encourage greater accountability.
The executive budget I introduced this year proposes a $13.5 million increase in common education funding specifically to support and implement these reforms, as well as an additional $8.5 million to pay for the rising cost of teachers’ health benefits.
Supporting job growth also requires eliminating cost-drivers to businesses. For decades, out-of-control workers’ compensation costs have been a burden on those doing business in Oklahoma. While recent reforms have effectively worked to reduce the total costs of claims, more needs to be done. This year, I will work with the House and Senate to pursue reforms that lower costs for businesses while treating injured workers fairly.
For Oklahoma to be friendlier to business, it will also have to be run more like a business. That means delivering a more responsible government that spends taxpayer dollars conservatively and wisely. In that light, I have worked with our agencies to develop a catalogue of state assets. I support a plan to evaluate and eventually sell those assets that are unproductive.
Many of our assets, of course, are worth keeping. Unfortunately, some of these same assets are in disrepair, including the state Capitol. My budget includes a $10 million supplemental funding request to immediately begin work restoring the Capitol exterior and to study future renovation needs.
Responsible government also means continuing our efforts to make government smaller, smarter and more efficient. The consolidation of Information Technology resources across dozens of state agencies has saved more than $80 million thus far, and we will continue those efforts to streamline government services and reduce waste in the future.
As I said in my State of the State speech, responsible government certainly means meeting the commitments we have made to state employees by addressing the unsustainable trajectory of our state pension systems. State pensions currently have $11 billion in unfunded liability. Essentially, that amounts to $11 billion in debt. That problem cannot be ignored and I will work with our legislators this session to begin addressing this problem.
Finally, I used my State of the State address to ask our lawmakers to increase resources aimed at boosting the physical health of our residents and improving mental health services. To that end, my executive budget includes more than $56 million in increased funding for health and mental health, money that will be used to improve access to medical care, create a new prescription drug abuse prevention program, and expand counseling to the emotionally disturbed.
Improving health and mental health in Oklahoma is just as important to containing health care costs and promoting economic growth as it is to our quality of life. My budget and my agenda reflect my belief that Oklahomans can and will do better when it comes to health outcomes.
My plan for 2013 is a plan for a more prosperous Oklahoma and a more responsible government. I look forward to working with lawmakers and all Oklahomans to pursue initiatives that continue our state’s remarkable forward progress.