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Blindsided

Image of Glenn Coffee

“This is great news not just for Stillwater and Payne County, but for the state of Oklahoma as a whole. Clearly, Mercury Marine has had a significant and profitable presence in Stillwater for years, but their decision to bring more jobs to Oklahoma is real and tangible evidence that the Right to Work law passed earlier this decade and the lawsuit reform law that is about to go into effect are good for business and good for our state.”—State Sen. Glenn Coffee on Facebook

State Sen. Glenn Coffee, a Republican and leader of the Oklahoma Senate, probably wishes he could take back the above quote lauding Mercury Marine, which recently threatened to relocate its entire operation to Stillwater as it pushed to get concessions from a Wisconsin union.

After some 800 members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin eventually voted to accept the concessions, Mercury Marine announced that, in fact, it will start phasing out its Stillwater operation altogether, which will mean a loss of about 400 jobs for the area. Consequently, Coffee’s comments became meaningless.

Initially, the union had voted against accepting the concessions, but once the company announced it was moving all its work to Stillwater, the union was allowed to take another vote. This time the union voted in favor of the wage and benefit concessions.

In his defense, Coffee, pictured right, made the pronouncement after Mercury Marine announced it was moving to Stillwater so he was obviously later blindsided, but his ideological rhetoric now rings hollow. One might even argue that right-to-work actually hurt the state in this instance because it allowed the company to use Oklahoma only as a bargaining tool. The truthful argument, though, is that right-to-work and so-called tort reform had absolutely nothing to do with Mercury Marine’s initial decision or its subsequent reversal of that decision.

Coffee added more:

I thank the management at Mercury Marine for the confidence they’ve shown in this decision, and I can assure them they’ll be delighted with the results. This sends a great message to employers across the nation that Oklahoma is the place to grow their business.

Actually, the opposite became true. The final decision by Mercury Marine shows the nation that businesses can use the threat of relocating to right-to-work, cheap-labor Oklahoma and similar states to get concessions from its workers in other states. This hurts our image on a national level and sends out a bad message.

Mercury Marine, according to media reports, has indicated it plans to pay back investment tax credits granted the company by the state legislature, but the real issue is the loss of jobs here. This is more than an economic impact issue in Stillwater and the state. It’s about real disruption in people’s lives.

The bottom line is the bottom line. Corporations have no fealty to geography. They exist to make money. Meanwhile, the Republican pro-business, anti-union ideology espoused by Coffee remains as intangible as ever here.

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Running On Extremism

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You know GOP operatives are worried about a backlash to wild claims criticizing President Barack Obama when even The Oklahoman editorial page begins backing away from the right-wing extremism

In the last week or so, the newspaper has been a forum for state Republican leaders to criticize Obama’s nonpartisan speech to school children, a speech which essentially tells children to work hard in school and take more responsibility for their own learning. Here's the full text of Obama's speech.

State Rep. Sally Kern (R-Oklahoma City) called the speech indoctrination, and state Sen. Steve Russell (R-Oklahoma City) went as far as to compare the speech to events in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, according to NewsOK.com. All this was about a simple speech urging kids to do well in school. It’s so over the top that even the state’s right-wing propaganda ministry eventually had to call it “inexcusable.”

An editorial titled “Talking Point: Partisan divide seen in speech flap” (September 8, 2009), has this little gem in it:

Out of balance were remarks by some Republican state lawmakers who object to Obama’s plans. One likened them to activities found in North Korea or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. That sort of vitriol is inexcusable.

Of course, The Oklahoman editors want it both ways. They help fuel the right-wing vitriol by giving space to outlandish views and running Internet polls about a made-up controversy, and then they want to step back and act as if they are above the fray.

Some conservatives may think all these wild claims about Obama being a communist and indoctrinator will stick and decrease the president’s chances at reforming health care in this country, but there could also be a backlash during the next general election as people realize the GOP has become the party of needless obstruction and extreme hyperbole. That may not be true in Oklahoma, which has become the nation’s anti-Obama headquarters, but even GOP leaders here have to worry how all this could play out in 2010.

As I said, even The Oklahoman seems to be backing away from some of the weirdness.

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Economic Diversity

Image of Oklahoma City skyline

If the state wants to further diversify its economy, its leaders—Democratic and Republican alike—must accept and promote diversity.

Sounds obvious, right? But it bears repeating in light of declining state revenues directly related to natural gas production taxes. The state’s budget is tied heavily to its energy sector, and when gas prices fall and supplies increase, revenues can decline at a rapid rate. This is what has been happening recently, forcing budget cuts.

According to the OK Policy Blog:

The continued weakness of natural gas prices and production is the most important factor accounting for Oklahoma’s disappointing revenue collections. July collections from natural gas production to the General Revenue Fund (GRF) totaled just $22.2 million in July - a 75 percent decline from revenues for the same month a year ago, and $42.1 million less than the estimate certified in February by the State Board of Equalization. More than half of the total revenue shortfall in the GRF can be attributed directly to falling revenues from the gross production tax on gas.

The blog, which is part of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, points out that budget problems will persist without an increase in revenue from natural gas production taxes. It also wisely calls for “serious budget reform ideas” to put gas tax money in savings to be used when prices drop.

But I think another important issue is how the state is perceived by the rest of the nation. Oklahoma has long been seen as an energy state with a bevy of outrageous and outspoken politicians with narrow views. These include state Rep. Sally Kern and U.S. Sens. Jim Inhofe and Tom Coburn, who make the state’s residents appear intolerant and judgmental. How can the state expect to attract new big businesses outside the energy sector when it seems so backwards and so anti-diversity to so many people? Yet the mantra has gone on for years: “We need to diversify the economy.” This is an intangible issue that, admittedly, is difficult to quantify, but it exists and it does have an impact.

Other issues related to diversifying the economy include Oklahoma’s low college graduate rate, which is below the national average, and the fact some of our best and brightest graduates leave Oklahoma for better salaries and opportunities. These are systemic problems that impact economic development. The state needs an educated workforce to compete for businesses.

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