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In Oklahoma, Republicans Take Two Views Toward Taxes

Rowers return to the Chesapeake Energy Boathouse after training on the river near downtown Oklahoma City. The riverfront recreation area is one of the most visible examples of the city's sales tax initiatives in action.
Joe Wertz/StateImpact Oklahoma
Rowers return to the Chesapeake Energy Boathouse after training on the river near downtown Oklahoma City. The riverfront recreation area is one of the most visible examples of the city's sales tax initiatives in action.

On Tuesday, voters in Tulsa County, Okla., will weigh in on a pair of ballot measures that would extend a sales tax hike to fund economic development and public works projects.

Tulsa's Republican mayor, Dewey Bartlett, and other local GOP leaders support the idea of continuing the tax hike. So does the local business establishment, represented by the Tulsa Metro Chamber.

This willingness to tax locally comes in one of the reddest, most Republican states in the country. At the state level, business leaders and Republican Gov. Mary Fallin pushed for an income tax cut this year — unsuccessfully, it turned out — and both are fond of saying that cutting taxes is the best way to create economic growth.

What's going on here?

It seems that two different economic visions are at work in Oklahoma: Republicans at the local level — at least in Oklahoma's two major metro areas, Tulsa and Oklahoma City — seem to be viewing taxes more favorably than their counterparts at the statehouse (who view taxes more like Republicans at the national level).

Bridging The Gap

Much of that view can be attributed to Oklahoma City's experience with raising sales taxes to pay for parks, a riverfront and other quality-of-life improvements.

Republican and Democratic local officials, community and business leaders see that program as a crucial part of Oklahoma City's renaissance, one that has brought restaurants, oil-company skyscrapers and an NBA franchise to a once-sleepy downtown. Combine that with an ongoing energy boom, and Oklahoma City has the lowest unemployment rate of any large U.S. city.

Representatives from all over the U.S. — from Raleigh, N.C., and Boise, Idaho, to El Paso, Texas — have traveled to Oklahoma City to pick up tips, says one of their tour guides, Greater Oklahoma City Chamber President and CEO Roy Williams.

"We're getting a dozen or more a year," he says. "There's a buzz in the nation about what's going on in Oklahoma City."

In 1993, Oklahoma City voters approved a temporary one-cent sales tax hike for what was called the Metropolitan Area Projects, or MAPS, program. Voters approved extensions of the tax hike three more times. The revenue funded school renovations and construction of a downtown canal, and paid to improve a river that was more weeds than water. The modernized riverfront is now anchored by a row of ultramodern boathouses where U.S. Olympic rowers train. The tax initiatives also helped modernize an arena complex to land the basketball team that became the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, a Republican, says the MAPS sales tax hike helped lift the city out of a "dire" 1980s recession.

"We were going nowhere," says Cornett, who has overseen most of the sales tax initiatives. "We were losing a generation of leadership. Young people who couldn't get good jobs were leaving for other cities."

Tulsa, Oklahoma City's cross-state rival, noticed. Community leaders put two items on the November ballot, which together would extend an existing six-tenths of a penny sales tax for 13 more years. One measure would largely earmark the revenues to modernizing a city-owned complex occupied by bankrupt American Airlines. The other would copy Oklahoma City's strategy of spending on quality-of-life projects, such as riverfront development, throughout Tulsa County.

"We don't exist in a vacuum," says G.T. Bynum, a Republican Tulsa City Council member. "There is competition out there for job recruitment, and for citizenry, and for quality of life."

State Of Mind

All this stands in contrast to how Republicans at the state level seem to view taxes and spending. Just down the road from Oklahoma City's revitalized Bricktown and Boathouse districts, the exterior of the state Capitol is crumbling around state lawmakers who've failed to pass a bond proposal for repairs. In 2011, the state handed off ownership of seven state parks in a bid to save $660,000 annually. Meanwhile, Oklahoma City moved forward with plans to spend $132 million to build new parks.

Politicians are a reflection of their constituents. And at Oklahoma's statehouse, rural and conservative lawmakers often dominate politics and policy discussions. That's one way to explain the divergent views toward taxes in Oklahoma.

Another way to look at it is that even fiscal conservatives will support taxes if they can see — and benefit from — how the money is being spent. State spending can feel very far away from everyday life, and federal spending farther still. But when taxing and spending is done locally, residents can actually see their money at work. And if it's not working, they know who's been holding the purse strings.

"In our MAPS programs and bond issues, you know exactly where that money is going," says Williams, of the Oklahoma City Chamber. "It's not going into a general budget. It's going for very specific projects."

Oklahoma City Mayor Cornett agrees. He says citizens feel better about taxes they've levied on themselves than they do about national or state officials "enacting taxes upon them."

"What we've really done is allow our citizens to determine their own level of taxation," Cornett says. "We give them options. They can choose to vote these taxes in, or they can choose not to. And at the end of the day they see what they're going to get for it."

Joe Wertz is a reporter for StateImpact Oklahoma. StateImpact is a collaboration between NPR and member stations examining the effect of state policy on people's lives.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joe was a founding reporter for StateImpact Oklahoma (2011-2019) covering the intersection of economic policy, energy and environment, and the residents of the state. He previously served as Managing Editor of Urban Tulsa Weekly, as the Arts & Entertainment Editor at Oklahoma Gazette and worked as a Staff Writer for The Oklahoman. Joe was a weekly arts and entertainment correspondent for KGOU from 2007-2010. He grew up in Bartlesville, Okla. and studied journalism at the University of Central Oklahoma.
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