By James S. Tyree
CNHI News Service
OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma House Speaker Todd Hiett, an ardent Republican, is tired of Oklahoma being so red. He wants to see it all become a blue state.
The speaker and other legislators Thursday announced their Rural Economic Development Initiative aimed at bringing more residents and jobs into cities and counties that have been losing population.
To illustrate, the group created a map that showed 48 counties and 43 additional communities affected areas in red, primarily in western, southeastern and far northeastern Oklahoma. Counties that have gained residents since 1940, according to the 2000 census, were blue.
Perhaps the most radical part of the initiative, the Come Home Oklahoma Act, would enact a five-year personal income tax exemption for any out-of-state person or family who moves into a REDI county or community and buys or builds a house for their primary residence.
C.J. Montgomery, president of the Woodward Chamber of Commerce, was eager to read the initiative in detail. But at first blush, he figured he’d be OK with some of his newer neighbors not having to pay income tax, as long as their arrival helps to build his region’s economy.
“Anything that helps rural Oklahoma, that was the stance they said they’d take,” he said. Montgomery said the REDI task force visited Woodward and took his town’s ideas last Nov. 1.
If passed, the measure would cost the state $6 million in fiscal year 2007 and $60 million by its completion in fiscal year 2013. But the return, said Rep. Lee Denney of Cushing, would be much more.
“If they get a job here then they buy a house and put their kids in schools here and they’re part of the economy, paying property and sales taxes, so it’s just a rippling effect,” she said.
Other REDI parts include:
* Boosting rural tourism by protecting from liability rural landowners who open their land to recreational tourism,
* Giving local communities funds to improve infrastructure for the accommodation of business and allowing counties to join to organize and enhance their economic development efforts,
* Streamlining permit regulations for new refineries, trucking permits and other processes that could otherwise frustrate commerce.
Some aspects are part of previously announced bills, such as ending the estate tax and boosting funds for county roads. In all, Hiett said, parts of the initiative will show up in 21 or 22 bills to be considered after the Legislature convenes Monday.
The diverse goals are meant to help different parts of the state with their own needs.
Montgomery said improving transportation is a major concern for northwestern Oklahoma, whereas Jim Mills, director of the McAlester Economic Development Service, said improving infrastructure for more industry is a bigger deal in his town.
McAlester remains within the REDI area despite making a recent recovery. Mills said about 500 new jobs have come to town over the past two years, some commercial and others industrial, “so our climate has been pretty positive.”
Private companies have invested $40 million in McAlester, but the city needs help with infrastructure to handle the growth.
“That is so important because if you cannot handle the expansion of an existing industry, which is Numbet 1, and then attracting new industry, then that hurts your economic development,” Mills said. “… The other thing is infrastructure can mean a lot of things like more housing and quality of life things like entertainment.”
In Woodward, Montgomery said doing away with daily trucking permits and, perhaps, making them annual was specifically brought up during the Woodward town meeting. Meanwhile, repairing the roads and bridges everyone drives remains a major commercial need.
“Our transportation need in this part of the country is foremost, and that is part of the legislative plan,” Montgomery said. “They upped the amount of money last year, but the next step is bringing more money to the counties.” Montgomery said a number of ideas bandied about in the Woodward meeting showed up in the initiative, which made him pleased but not surprised. “That’s kind of been what we expected,” he said. “They do want to get a true handle on it, and it was a bipartisan effort.”
James S. Tyree is CNHI News Service Oklahoma reporter.
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