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What led to a bill eliminating OSDE public relations spending?

Posted at 6:12 PM, Jun 13, 2024

On June 14, Governor Kevin Stitt signed off on SB 1122, vetoing sections 15 and 16 of the proposed bill.

Section 15, would have forced the Oklahoma State Department of Education to apply for any federal grant funding received without approval from the President Pro Tempore of the Oklahoma State Senate and Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.

Section 16, would have prohibited any usage of funds by the Oklahoma State Department of Education for “media interviews, public relations or other public promotion.”

Governor Stitt instead issued Executive Order 2024-12, which prohibits state agencies from entering sole source contracts with PR, marketing or communications firms and vendors.

The order mandates all contracts with PR vendors must be procured through a minimum 30-day request for proposal and agreements currently in place that were secured via sole source will not be renewed and terminate at the end of the contract.

Governor Stitt released this statement.

"We all have to remember, the money we spend doesn't belong to us - it belongs to Oklahoma taxpayers," said Governor Stitt. "Oklahomans expect my administration to steward each tax dollar well, and that's exactly what we're going to do. It makes no sense for state agencies who pay the salaries of communications staff to outsource work to PR firms via sole source contracts. It's wasteful and we're putting a stop to it statewide."

The Republican-led bill to eliminate the spending results from months of State Superintendent Ryan Walters's state-funded media interviews and at least $100,000 committed to companies for videos and public appearance-related items.

A recent tweet appears to show Walters at Fox News Studios. The Frontier investigated thousands of dollars in PR travel expenses, not all involving education. One was a trip to Dallas to attend a film premiere.
To Walters’ critics, his Chief Policy Advisor Matt Langston could be encouraging this focus on campaigning and overall lack of transparency.

Representative Mark McBride is calling for Attorney General Gentner Drummond to investigate misuse of spending and whether Langston is being paid to promote political aspirations, rather than education.

Langston runs a campaign strategy company called Engage Right.

“Is there something ‘not right’ going on? Are they [Engage Right] taking a cut from the state… I mean, I don’t know. We just need to know for sure that is not going on.”

Langston works remotely and drew well over six-figures last year for part-time work with benefits.

As chairman of the Budget and Appropriations Committee, McBride wanted to know Langston’s job responsibilities and find out what work he is doing.

He said he never had a problem getting information from agencies. In this case, he felt forced to file a subpoena.

“It’s really sad,” he said. “I’ve got 12 or 13 agencies under my committee and I’ve got to do this to get information out of one.”

This bill is one of several aimed at reeling in power from the OSDE.

Frustrated by the lack of action from the legislature, Oklahomans like Kendall Brown are feeling in the dark and compelled to do their own investigating.

“Unfortunately because so many of them are being complete cowards about this, it is left up to the people of Oklahoma to hold them accountable," Brown said.

A new petition website called Wanted Ryan Walters is requesting support to fight SB 1122.

Brown, through reading code, discovered it was created by Langston’s company.

“It was very obvious that they were trying to not have people know who made this website,” said Brown.

She views the move as just another example of secrecy.

As a digital strategist who often creates online petitions for other organizations, Brown said she was shocked to see no legal disclaimer or public signature counter on his site.

“Ryan Walters could say a million people signed that petition and Oklahomans would have no way of pushing back on that,” she said.

Walters maintains he is transparent. The OSDE told 2 News everything about Langston’s position is legitimate. Walters called this bill a political attack.

While the bill passed the House, dozens of members voted against it, including Representative Chad Caldwell. He said, overall, he supports Walters and his policies.

“I think we should try and separate personalities from policies,” Caldwell said.

Caldwell said he voted “no” because eliminating all public relations spending includes positive programs and teacher recruiting. He said self-promotion should have been specified in the bill.

“It was so broad, so poorly worded,” Caldwell said. “And quite frankly, I simply think that it’s going to inhibit the Department of Education from doing their job, which is to improve the education of Oklahoma students.”

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