Republican gubernatorial candidate Kevin Stitt encountered a friendly audience Tuesday during a town hall meeting sponsored by the Young Republicans at Muskogee High School.
It was the candidate’s second public event in as many weeks in the hometown of his Democratic rival, former Attorney General Drew Edmondson. Stitt fielded questions about teaching salaries and taxes, two topics he used to compare and contrast his candidacy with Edmondson’s.
The GOP contender said he, like the Democratic nominee, supports higher salaries for Oklahoma teachers. But Stitt made it clear that he opposes all new taxes and tax hikes, saying there is sufficient revenue right now to raise teaching salaries to a level that beats the regional average.
Stitt also promoted an idea he considers necessary to successfully reform state government. As part of his response to at least four questions, Stitt said the governor must be free to appoint the top person in every state agency. He advocated for broader discretion when it comes time for a governor to appoint members of the state appellate courts.
“The governor needs to have more flexibility to choose — and then, with Senate confirmation — so it is actually in the hands of elected officials,” Stitt said, advocating a system like the federal government just days after what may have been the most contentious nomination proceeding for a U.S. Supreme Court justice. “The next governor will get to appoint probably two or three (Oklahoma) Supreme Court justices, and it’s an important part to get the Oklahoma values we all deserve and expect.”
Stitt broached the issue again while discussing the Oklahoma Department of Transportation’s plans to reroute traffic on U.S. 69 around Muskogee on a proposed bypass.
“Until I have the authority to appoint the Department of Transportation head, these kind of things go around the city fathers — that is why we have to have that type of authority to hire and fire the agency heads,” Stitt said. “They can’t be rogue agencies out here and do whatever they want without talking to the cities it affects.”
When a questioner quizzed Stitt about veterans issues, the GOP nominee said a sitting governor must be fully vested with appointment powers to ensure “we are delivering the best services for our veterans.” Stitt said he would “make sure we have the right appointees there running our different departments at the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs.”
In response to a question about steep funding cuts for state parks, the gubernatorial hopeful said the “governor has got to appoint” the head of the Oklahoma Tourism Department. He said that person should be a skilled marketer and be able to promote state tourism.
Stitt will face Edmondson and Libertarian Chris Powell in the three-way race for governor on Nov. 6. He predicted a “close race” and told those who attended that voter turnout will be key to the outcome — voters have until Friday to register or update voting registration records in order to cast a ballot in the general election.