Norman, state lawmakers talk ARPA funds, incentives, special sessions

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Jun. 23—Norman's Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday disagreed with Republican leaders in the Oklahoma Legislature over the success of the state budget.

State lawmakers agreed on a $9.7 billion budget for fiscal year 2023. The budget included just under $700 million in economic development incentives to attract tech giant Panasonic, a $32.5 million increase in DHS funding, and $14.2 million to go toward 30% pay increases for Oklahoma Highway Patrol troopers. Additionally, the budget included a December payment of $75 to taxpayers or $150 to married couples, according to the Associated Press.

At an IMPACT Luncheon Tuesday at Norman's Embassy Suites, Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, D-Norman, and Sen. Mary Boren, D-Norman, expressed disappointment in the budget — namely over education and a sizable investment meant to attract Panasonic, a Japanese electronics manufacturer. Their outlook contradicted Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, who touted the budget, and Speaker of the House Charles McCall, R-Atoka, who said it was "mostly good."

Rosecrants said he saw a missed opportunity for certain sectors of the public, particularly education. He asserted that education didn't seem like a prime concern in the budgeting process.

"Especially public education, with rising inflation and really just issues across the board right now," Rosecrants said. "I think when it comes to the cost of keeping a school open, there was a last budget for our public schools, which again, these public schools service over 700,000 children, so it's just, it didn't look like it was a priority."

Rosecrants said he would have voted for the budget if public education funding was better addressed.

Outside of day-to-day in the classroom, Norman public schools will open the Oklahoma Aviation Academy this fall. A $49 million request is currently pending, which would go toward academy funding.

"I can't speak specifically to the Oklahoma Aviation Academy, but I can speak to the fact that Aerospace is absolutely central to our economy now."

Treat said aerospace is in the "sweet spot" for economic development, and should be perceived favorably.

"But I can't commit to it because I don't know all the parameters on it — I will look into it," Treat said.

Treat also pointed to a $20 million investment into the National Weather Center at the University of Oklahoma as a high point in the budget. He said the weather center is the crown jewel of research in the nation, but as tornado alley moves eastward, Alabama, Mississippi and other states are taking advantage of their legislatures to try to capture the title of weather capital of the country and move research dollars to other universities.

A $698 million incentive to lure a Panasonic electric vehicle battery manufacturing plant to Mayes County was arguably one of the more controversial items in the budget. The package was signed by Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt in late April.

Boren, who voted for the incentive, said she had reservations about stamping her approval. She said strong economic arguments exist against incentivizing and enticing companies to expand or locate in a particular city.

"'Bribe' is a toxic kind of word, but how much do you compromise the integrity of the whole system to try to woo one company?" Boren said.

Boren said constituents largely agreed that if money is set aside as a business incentive, it should be used for sustainable energy with exploration for increasing battery capacity.

A better alternative, Boren argued, would be an attempt to better fund the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology, a state agency that encourages more responsible tech-based economic development.

Boren said OCAST's budget was only partially funded.

"That just kind of hit me that you see these things where we'll do something like $698 million for this thing that clearly stretches capitalistic principles," Boren said.

Treat, said economic development was prioritized, but the money can only get spent if a company invests $4 billion and has 4,000 employees.

"Because of these vast surpluses that we're experiencing, we can set $700 million aside and say it's paid for by the taxpayers of the state of Oklahoma, they come here, don't have to worry about toeing the bill on this, and we can structure it the way that we've learned from the past to keep some boundaries on them," McCall said. "The company would have to put in jobs and investment to get the money — if they don't, not a penny of it goes to them."

Special sessions

Legislators are currently in two special sessions — one for the appropriation of $1.87 billion in American Rescue Plan Act dollars, and another on inflation relief.

A third special session for inflation reform is a work in progress, according to Treat.

As the state awaits the plan for the distribution of $1.87 billion in ARPA funding, McCall said legislators are at a point where they're "trying to figure out what the best things are here in the state."

The Governor's Office contracted with a company called Guidehouse for the vetting process; however, Treat said their activity ceased in March. Now lawmakers must reassess projects requesting funds to determine eligibility.

Treat said the state is contracted with Melissa Houston and 929 strategies, who will help vet projects.

"We're getting those revised," Treat said.

Jeff Elkins covers business, living and community stories for The Transcript. Reach him at jelkins@normantranscript.com or at @JeffElkins12 on Twitter.