Oklahoma City: A Win-Win
How Oklahoma City Passed Three Transformative Tax Initiatives in Difficult Economic Times
By Brett Rosenberg
June 28, 2010
In a special U.S. Conference of Mayors Summer Meeting session, four Oklahoma City mayors, past and present, gathered for a panel discussion that focused on how the city resurrected its urban core and improved facilities throughout the community. Andy Coats, mayor of Oklahoma City from 1983 through 1987, moderated the panel that consisted of Ron Norick, mayor from 1987 through 1998; Kirk Humphreys, mayor from 1998 through November of 2003; and Mick Cornett, the current mayor. Their tale, like many of note, involved vision, leadership, cooperation and a bit of luck.
Beginning in the early 1980's when the rapid collapse of a regional oil boom led to local bank closures, the mayors presented a historical perspective of Oklahoma City's economic fall and renaissance. Coats, who said the city was "a victim of its own success and a dismal failure," referring to the boom and bust cycle brought on by oil, set the stage for the beginning of a new, prosperous era. As a city with municipal operations almost completely funded through sales tax, Coats said it was extremely difficult to develop economically, despite incremental voter-approved sales tax increase for a zoo and libraries. Thanks in large measure to the sinking Oklahoma economy, the city was treading water for much of Coats- time in office.
A few years into Norick's first term in 1991, United Airlines considered Oklahoma City a potential site for a major maintenance hub. A deal was partly contingent upon voter approval for a series of infrastructure improvements that would lure the airline to the city, desperate for jobs. In hindsight what looked very fortunate for the city, United chose Indianapolis for its facility. Norick, who went to Indianapolis and other cities to see what they had but Oklahoma City lacked, determined that United made a "Quality of Life" decision. Indianapolis was vibrant; at the time — Oklahoma City was not. There was not a variety of restaurants, nightlife and other amenities widely available; nor were there many good schools. At this time, Norick began to visualize what his city could be, and, he said, wondered "if our citizens are willing to tax themselves for somebody else, maybe they-d be willing to tax themselves for themselves."
At this point, Norick began to visualize what downtown could be and began working with the city council, the chamber of commerce and community leaders to develop plans to renew the city. The Oklahoma City of today began with Norick's vision, known as MAPS (Metropolitan Area Projects), a series of nine area projects bundled together and funded through a one-cent, voter-approved sales tax. Among other projects, Bricktown, the canal running through it, and AAA baseball stadium in the heart of the city came about thanks to MAPS. At the time, Norick was front and center in the voter referendum process, spending much of his political capital on the vote, which passed by 54 percent, adding one cent to the sales tax rate for five years. Voters later approved by 67 percent a continuation of the tax, which collected $363 million in five and one-half years for the community. Norick commented that much of his efforts involved keeping the voters informed and keeping his promises. With the 1998 completion of the Oklahoma Redhawks AAA stadium in 1998, Norick said that the people of Oklahoma City "finally understood."
Humphreys continued the work of his predecessors. He worked to get an additional MAPS referendum passed, funding improvements at a city rowing facility, fairground improvements, and other projects. Taking a cue from Norick, he said, "Without a mayor willing to put his political capital on the line, the project won-t go through." Humphrey also realized that something was missing: widely available quality public schools.
In Oklahoma City, the inner city district is Oklahoma City public schools, but there are 23 other school districts within the city limits, presenting quite the challenge. Much of the inner city district had fallen into disrepair but due to state law at the time, they could not pass a bond issues to raise funds. Hence, the development of MAPS for Kids. Humphrey, working with the city council, proposed a one-cent, seven-year sales tax to fund renovations or rebuilding at 73 district facilities. Due largely to the success of the earlier MAPS referenda, MAPS for Kids also passed in 2001, bringing $514 million to area schools (70 percent went to the inner city district; the rest was divided between the other 23 districts). While the schools still aren-t perfect, the facility upgrades are leading to over all educational improvements. In addition to expending considerable capital, Humphrey said it was important to work well with others, stating, "if you want something done in you community, you can-t have a history of turf warfare — you need to unify, bring folks together."
Cornett, Oklahoma City's current mayor, had his own referendums, MAPS 2 1/2, which passed with 64 percent of the vote in March 2008, and MAPS 3, approved in December of 2009. MAPS 2 1/2 was a key element in recruiting an NBA team to the city, and has been responsible for million of dollars in facility upgrades around town. MAPS 3 involves eight other projects, many which were chosen in an on-line "call for ideas." Cornett pointed out that during every iteration of MAPS, there were no other tax increases in Oklahoma City, with the exception of a hotel room tax geared toward state fair ground upgrades.
Cornett said that throughout his tenure as mayor, the biggest challenge with MAPS has been getting the suburban vote. The key, he said, was convincing people, older voters in particular, that they were not necessarily trying to create a destination for them. Rather, he said, the goal was to create a city in which their kids and grandkids would want to stay in for the long term.
While the discussion's substance was certainly apt, interesting and enlightening, perhaps the most compelling aspect of the forum was the knowledge and experience of the four panel mayors. Spanning four generations of Oklahoma City leadership, the mayors reflected the continuity, creativity and leadership to which any mayor would be glad to aspire.