The Woodward News

April 11, 2014

Governor points to successes

Rachael Van Horn
Woodward News

— One day after filing to run for a second term as Oklahoma's leader, Governor Mary Fallin made a quick stop in Woodward Thursday morning, while on her way to appear at a special event in Guymon.

Three challengers, Democrat Joe Dorman and Independents, Richard Prawdzienski and Joe Sills also filed their intent Wednesday to make a run for the position. On Tuesday, Chad Moody, another Republican, filed on Tuesday.

In a short meeting with the Woodward News, Oklahoma's first woman governor highlighted the accomplishments of her administration, pointing to significant job growth, per capita income increases (up 6.1 percent), the creation of policies that attract industry and a focus on education reform as the building blocks to a healthy Oklahoma economy.

She believes these accomplishments have set the state up for continued, stable growth in the coming years.

"Since I became governor, one of the things I have been pushing is how to create a stronger or vibrant economy, to lower unemployment and to create new jobs," Fallin said. "That's been my major push is just job creation."

Fallin noted since taking office January of 2011, the state's savings account has gone from $2.03 - just after the state suffered a nearly $2 billion hit to its budget revenue due to the recession - to more than $500,000,000.

"Oklahoma, when I took office back in January of 2011, had gone through some pretty tough times. and I know this area has gone through some tough times too," Fallin said. "Back in 2009 and 2010 the legislature had cut about a billion dollars in funding, including education funding and many different sources of funding to different governmental entities because we had gone through the recession."

As a result, Fallin said when she took office, there was still about a $500 million budget shortfall.

"That is why I made jobs and the economy my number one goal, was to get Oklahoma back on track," she said.

Since 2011, the state budget has grown back to over $7 billion, she said.

"So what we have seen is that even though we have gradually lowered our income tax, our economy has grown, our jobs have grown and the census has grown because we have become more competitive as a state," she said.

The aim of Fallin's administration over the last three years has been to build a reputation in the corporate community as a business friendly state, to prioritize the spending on education, public safety, health and human services and infrastructure.

We are "trying to keep the cost of doing business low in our state for small business owners and frankly just to make us more attractive to not only new additions of jobs but to the creation of new companies coming to our state," she said.

Oklahoma's growth in recent years and any possible continued growth pivots on the hub that is positive and strong job growth, Fallin noted.  And she used the 2012 opening of Siemens Energy of Woodward as a perfect example of how corporate growth can impact a community.

With the continued growth of the energy market in this region, the median household income is nearing $51,000 per year in Woodward, she said.  That is getting close to a $20,000 jump in median household income from 2000 when it was around $32,000, according to Census statistics.

Fallin also used the Siemens Energy reference as a springboard to the subject of education reform, such as high stakes testing, Common Core and merit based pay, all of which have sparked contentious debate recently.

A recent teacher's rally on the steps of the Oklahoma Capitol demonstrated apparent growing over the low standing of the state with regard to what the state spends per child and the largely unfunded remediation requirements for students who are not achieving.

At present the state ranks 49th in per pupil spending, according statistics by the Oklahoma Education Association. Teachers also pointed out the loss of 1,500 teachers statewide and a growing class size they feel impacts students.

"Certainly, education has had some cuts prior to me getting into office with the national recession," Fallin said. "So we started working on gradually starting to put more money back into education as our economy grew and recovered."

Last year, Fallin said, legislators added $120 million to education, including technology education centers.

She added another $50 million to common education, despite the budget shortfalls this year, she said.

But Fallin staunchly defends her position where accountability and high stakes testing are concerned, stating that more than 65 percent of the jobs available today require some form of higher education.

While she still believes the basic concept of Common Core and its push to ensure students can compete nationally, she does understand the feelings of many who resent the implications of federal influence on local education.

For that reason, she intends to support legislation that clarifies there will be no federal interference into the local school protocol.

"I am a person who believes in local control of our school system but I also know how very important it is that we have academic rigor in our classrooms, that we measure a students progress, that we hold teachers accountable, that we have the very best teachers in the classroom and that we test for results," she said.

Fallin also took time to explain the dichotomy that has become the state's budgeting system and how it goes about spending money.

And she described why, even though there has been significant financial recovery in the state, the state is still suffering a more than $140 million shortfall this year.

According to Fallin, it begins with how the legislature decides to spend money.

"The challenge is how the legislature, over the decades, has been allocating money and passing legislation," Fallin said. "They have been skimming money off the top to go toward specific areas of government ."

She said for every tax dollar that comes into state coffers, legislative spending bills already passed to support certain governmental entities, such as transportation, teachers retirement, are taken "off the top".

That means the legislature only gets to prioritize with about 44 percent of each dollar, she said.

"I have really been getting the legislature to rethink, and I have been really holding them to that this year, that we have to change how we allocate and how we do our budgeting so we can prioritize where we want our money to go."