What it means to be a Top 10 state, according to Gov. Kevin Stitt
Just call him Oklahoma’s motivator-in-chief.
On the campaign trail, Kevin Stitt vowed to make Oklahoma a Top 10 state — a lofty goal by any means considering state-by-state rankings often show the Sooner State falling behind.
The gubernatorial catchphrase sounds like something out of a quick-hit Buzzfeed article. But it’s unbelievably catchy.
During Stitt’s first year in office, the mantra has caught on among state agency heads (even those Stitt didn’t hire), legislators, county leaders, local activists and candidates for elected office. The governor's friends and foes have adopted the phrase, although the latter often use "Top 10" sarcastically.
Stitt has been light on details when uttering the oft-used phrase. That’s by design, he said.
“I believe that my job as the governor, or the leader of the state, is to set that big vision," he said. "A vision and a direction should be long term, it should be aspirational. It’s not concrete. It’s not as detailed as a strategic plan."
As for how Oklahoma enters the top tier, Stitt has left many of the particulars up to the state agency heads he’s hired and the more than 200 people he’s appointed to serve in state government.
For Stitt, becoming a Top 10 state is a mantra, a mentality and a driver to make Oklahoma a better place to live, work and play.
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“That’s what I want people talking about,” he said. “We can be, we should be, we are a fantastic state. We should take second place to no other state.”
When Stitt envisions a Top 10 state, he thinks of Texas, Arizona, Tennessee and Florida — states governed by fellow Republicans.
They are model states for low unemployment, job growth, good health outcomes and a strong education, he said.
Having visited 49 states — all except Alaska — and traveled across Oklahoma during his campaign, Stitt feels like he has a pretty good idea of where Oklahoma stacks up.
“When I was in the private sector, I would travel and visit our business locations all across the country, and I just realized that other states had more going on," he said.
But Stitt, who just completed his first year in office, said he’s making progress boosting Oklahoma's status.
Stitt touted Oklahoma’s largest ever single-day mass commutation, in which more than 450 low-level offenders were released from prison. Although Oklahoma released a record number of prisoners, the state is still one of the worst for incarceration.
Oklahoma has gone from 47th in government transparency to seventh after launching Oklahoma Checkbook — an online tool to look at state finances and spending, Stitt said.
After having some of the worst bridges in the nation, Oklahoma is now ranked 13th for having the fewest structurally deficient bridges, in part due to work the Oklahoma Department of Transportation started years before Stitt entered office.
After successive pay raises, state teacher salaries are among the top in the region, Stitt said. In tourism, another top priority for Stitt, the governor noted that Oklahoma’s state tourism site had 4 million unique visitors last year, which ranks among the Top 10 states for unique web traffic.
Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman, said there’s a lot of talk about making Oklahoma a Top 10 state because residents aspire for the state to be better.
But when it comes to some of the top issues Oklahomans care about — health care, education and criminal justice — Stitt has not specified what he plans to do to improve the state’s rankings, she said.
“At this point, becoming a Top 10 state is just a slogan, it’s just a catchphrase,” she said. “I don’t think we’ve seen a plan to being Top 10 in health care or education, and those are the two issues Oklahomans are concerned most about.”
Stitt — who opposes Medicaid expansion, which will be on the ballot sometime this year — said he plans to roll out his health care plan soon. He also plans to make progress on criminal justice reforms and improving education this year, although he has not offered details of his plans.
Realistically, it’s impossible for Oklahoma to become a top state without having more money and greater investment in core services, Virgin said.
“What you see these top states doing is expanding services and investing more in their people,” she said. “What you’re seeing in Oklahoma, and what you’ve seen for the past 10 years now, is that we’re cutting services. We’re never going to get to the Top 10 if we don’t start having a conversation about how we can invest more in our people.”
Stitt disagreed. Oklahoma is not a poor state and there is investment in the state, he said.
But simply pouring more money into state agencies isn’t the key to improving state government, Stitt said. There's room to make the agencies run more efficiently, which will make taxpayer dollars go further.
Collaboration is key
Stitt relies heavily on state agency heads and cabinet secretaries to determine where Oklahoma can advance into the Top 10.
“The way you set those goals, I can never do it by myself,” he said. “I have to bring these really smart people around me.”
A year ago, Justin Brown was CEO of a senior living company with businesses across multiple states. Now, he leads the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, which helps some of the state’s most vulnerable populations.
Stitt’s Top 10 state vision resonated with Brown when he was still in the private sector. When Stitt reached out to gauge Brown’s interest in joining state government, they talked about the governor’s vision for Oklahoma.
“We talked about what does Top 10 mean, and is it just a catchphrase or does it mean something? It was very clear from our very first conversation that Top 10 means something,” Brown said.
The governor charged Brown with making OKDHS a Top 10 agency and gave him flexibility on how to reach that goal. Brown said his staff's first inclination was to find numbers across the country that would allow them to compare Oklahoma to other states in various aspects of human services.
Instead, OKDHS took 90 days to identify how it could better serve its customers, with all seven of the agency’s divisions coming up with three to five goals on how to better serve Oklahomans. The agency called the process “Finding our True North.”
“Because of the complexities of the state and the size of these agencies and all of the different missions that we encounter, there are lots of ways to be Top 10,” Brown said. “There isn’t a ranking anywhere that says, you’re the best state.”
Some other agencies can more easily track what makes top tier states and how Oklahoma stacks up.
The Oklahoma Department of Commerce has a research team that reports every month where Oklahoma stands in various business rankings, said Brent Kisling, who was appointed by Stitt to lead the department. The department looks at how Oklahoma ranks on per capita income, unemployment, GDP growth, job growth and more.
The department also looks at about 150 publications that rank states based on various business metrics.
“It really drives us to see what we need to be working on and what our successes are,” Kisling said.
Ahniwake Rose, executive director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, said she's hopeful Stitt's upcoming State of the State speech will include more details about what it means to be Top 10 and the state metrics guiding his decision making.
She also cautioned against trying to implement a vision for Oklahoma that does not include input from average Oklahomans.
"Change does not come from a top-down approach," Rose said. "Change comes from — and Oklahoma is a great example of this — a community and a groundswell that’s engaged and involved and feels like they have a meaningful voice and a stake in the conversation." She pointed to supporters of Medicaid expansion turning in a record-breaking number of signatures and the tens of thousands of Oklahoma teachers who went on strike in 2018.
Born and raised in Owasso, Rose moved from Washington, D.C., back to Oklahoma in August for the job at the nonpartisan think tank. Stitt's rhetoric about improving Oklahoma played into Rose's desire to return home.
As did a growing feeling of optimism and hope in Oklahoma, she said.
"I never thought that when I started having children that this was where I wanted to come back," Rose said. "I was really concerned about the education system and the health care system. You start seeing the metrics, and you see these reports that come out every year and Oklahoma was always on the bottom. It’s hard to think about wanting to move back and put your family there. Then, over the last two years, you started seeing a lot of change and momentum across the state.
Oklahoma legislators play a major role in determining what it means to be a Top 10 state.
Stitt laid out a vision to make Oklahoma a top state, but his vision is just one piece of the state government puzzle, said House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols.
His job is not to lay out a perfect roadmap to becoming a Top 10 state because that would cut the Legislature out of the process, Echols said.
The governor is just one of three coequal branches of government. He gets to set his vision, but each legislator gets the chance to interpret that vision, Echols said.
“As each individual member is 1/148th of a branch, we’ve got to determine what that (Top 10) means,” he said. “The governor casts a vision for the state, but a lot of it is members deciding what do we want that to be in health care or in education or whatever else.”
Saying you want to be a Top 10 state is a commitment to deliverables, Echols said. Stitt's vision has legislators thinking in terms of how to improve outcomes for Oklahomans, whether that be for children in the public education system, state retirees, veterans or other residents, he said.
As Stitt prepares to outline his priorities for his second year in office, he'll be keeping in mind what Oklahoma should do to become a leading state in health care, education and accountability in how state entities are spending tax dollars.
When asked if it’s possible for Oklahoma to become a Top 10 in four or eight years — depending on how long he is in office — Stitt said he’s optimistic.
“It certainly is in a lot of different categories,” he said. “It’s not going to be possible in eight years over every single thing that we do, but overall, is it possible for us to be a Top 10 state? Yeah, I think so.”