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Economic Development Leaders Tell Lawmakers How to Spur Oklahoma's Economy

Economic development leaders say Oklahoma needs certain financial incentives and more mindful legislation if it’s going to attract new businesses and help grow existing ones.

In an interim study on Oklahoma’s economy, House members were told to be methodical in eliminating tax incentives. Brien Thorstenberg with the Tulsa Regional Chamber said a five-year property tax abatement is pushing along two Tulsa-area deals worth a combined investment of $1.7 billion and 5,500 jobs.

"We are competing with states that offer 10- and 15-year property tax abatements, so if we were to lose a five-year tax abatement, it would pretty much knock us off the map in terms of our competitiveness on these projects," Thorstenberg said.

Thorstenberg said the Quality Jobs program and a tax credit refunding aerospace companies part of their engineers’ salaries are other incentives Oklahoma should keep.

He also told lawmakers they should restock a nearly depleted incentive fund. The governor’s quick-action closing fund tops out at $6 million, but an ongoing budget crisis has stopped lawmakers from putting money in it. Thorstenberg said it serves two important purposes.

"One is the speed to the market. How fast can the company get up and be ramped up to where they're bringing revenues in?" Thorstenberg said. "The other the closing fund is crucial is reducing the cost of startups. The quick-action closing fund helps reduce that cost, and when you're looking at, say, three other communities that could make that project work, that's where the closing fund is so important."

Thorstenberg said 38 states have some sort of deal-closing fund, ranging from $3 million in New Mexico to $300 million in Texas.

Financial incentives, however, aren’t all Oklahoma needs.

Kurt Foreman with the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber told lawmakers to also consider how bills on social issues like abortion affect the state’s reputation.

"When we even talk about criminalizing physicians or seeming intolerant on diversity and things like that, it doesn't help us," Foreman said. "Even if those things don't happen, it can take years for those things to overcome."

Foreman said he’s had to start recent negotiations by reassuring executives Oklahoma will welcome all their employees. Thorstenberg said he constantly gets calls asking Oklahoma's stance on certain social issues and told lawmakers to be "cognizant" of how their decisions affect economic development.

Matt Trotter joined KWGS as a reporter in 2013. Before coming to Public Radio Tulsa, he was the investigative producer at KJRH. His freelance work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and on MSNBC and CNN.