Political newcomer Kevin Stitt sworn in as Oklahoma governor

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma's new Republican governor took office Monday and renewed his campaign pledge to make it a "top ten state," saying he will apply lessons he learned traveling the country while running the business he founded to try to improve the place where he grew up.

Kevin Stitt became Oklahoma's 28th governor as he and other statewide elected officials took their oaths of office during a ceremony on the south steps of the Oklahoma Capitol.

Stitt, a married father of six, spoke about his family, growing up in the state and what motivated him to consider leaving his job running Gateway Mortgage and to try his hand in politics.

"Two years ago, the idea of running for governor was still just a small mustard seed," Stitt said. "I traveled the country visiting my offices in other states, seeing their economies take off and thrive.

"I would then come home to the state that I love to find us struggling, stuck at the bottom in every category that matters."

Stitt, who painted himself on the campaign trail as a businessman outsider in the mold of President Donald Trump, emerged from a ten-man GOP field that included a popular Oklahoma City mayor and a two-term lieutenant governor.

Although details have been sparse, Stitt outlined three areas where he's expected to push for policy changes: expanding the governor's power over state agencies, improving public education and reducing the state's high incarceration rate. Stitt will outline his agenda in a State of the State address on Feb. 4.

With a Republican-led Legislature that is eager to work with a new governor, it's likely that Stitt could push through a substantial portion of his agenda during the upcoming legislative session. New Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat and House Speaker Charles McCall both described an unprecedented level of enthusiasm among members in the House and Senate to work with Stitt and a willingness to embrace his ideas.

"We need to set big, bold ideas, and I'm excited that he did," said Treat, of Oklahoma City. "If we can transform the way the executive branch works, where the governor actually has some control and accountability, I think Oklahoma will be a lot better off."

Stitt also has touted improving public education as a top priority, including additional pay hikes for teachers, but it's still unclear what kinds of proposals he'll endorse.

"Really the devil is in the details there of what we can agree on," Treat said. "We have not gotten down the road thus far on exactly what those reforms entail, but I'm interested to hear more concrete ideas on that."

The start of Stitt's tenure also marks the exit from politics for Gov. Mary Fallin, a GOP stalwart who broke gender barriers during a nearly 30-year career in state politics that also included stints as a legislator, lieutenant governor and congresswoman.

Stitt distanced himself from Fallin on the campaign trail and has replaced nearly all her top appointees and Cabinet secretaries. But he will get to take advantage of many of the difficult fiscal decisions Fallin and the Legislature made last year after months of grueling negotiations and special sessions, highlighted by the statewide teacher walkout and the approval of the largest package of tax increases in state history.

Political wrangling over the tax hikes played a part in a dozen GOP legislators losing their re-election bids, but it also helped stabilize Oklahoma's budget and provide public school teachers with their first pay hike in a decade, an average annual boost of $6,100.

The new revenue from the tax increases, along with Oklahoma's rebounding economy and a recent boom in the oil patch, has led to an anticipated surplus in excess of $600 million to spend on next year's budget, along with another $450 million in the state's rainy day reserve fund.


Inmate convicted in child's death killed in Oklahoma prison

McALESTER, Okla. (AP) — Oklahoma officials say a man convicted of murder in the 1997 disappearance of his 8-year-old neighbor has been killed in prison.

The Oklahoma Department of Correction says Anthony Palma was found unresponsive in his cell late Friday. Investigators believe his cellmate killed him.

Palma was serving a life sentence for the presumed death of Kirsten Hatfield. The girl was kidnapped from her home in the Oklahoma City suburb of Midwest City. Her body was never found.

Palma was convicted 20 years after Kirsten's disappearance. He was arrested after new DNA testing linked him to blood found on her bedroom windowsill.

Midwest City Police Chief Brandon Clabes tells TV station KWTV that Palma "probably met his justice" but that authorities had hoped Palma would one day lead them to Kirsten's body.


Oklahoma attorney faces racketeering, solicitation charges

TULSA, Okla. (AP) — An Oklahoma attorney has been accused of racketeering, solicitation for murder and other charges by the state's multicounty grand jury.

An indictment unsealed Monday accuses 54-year-old Winston Connor II of Grove of 10 charges involving his relationship with 36-year-old Slint Tate, a former client of Connor's who is serving life in prison for first-degree murder.

Authorities previously wiretapped a phone that Tate smuggled into prison and allegedly used to communicate with Connor in May 2016. Shortly afterward, prosecutors filed charges against suspects in a multi-state drug ring operated from prison that allegedly netted sales of up to $1 million a week.

Connor was arrested Saturday in North Carolina. His attorney, Paul DeMuro, told the Tulsa World that Connor is innocent and that they will fight the charges "tooth and nail."