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How Oklahoma City Avoided Economic Pitfalls


State and local governments have finally slowed their mass elimination of jobs in recent years. They have repeatedly cut back on services as tax revenues fell.


Many still have cuts to make, but as the economy slowly improves, city governments are looking again to grow their economies. Many of the nation's mayors have been meeting this week in Washington, D.C., and economic growth is on their minds.

INSKEEP: This morning, we'll check in again with Mick Cornett, head of the Republican Mayors Association and mayor of Oklahoma City. His city has done relatively well economically, thanks to the energy business and, he says, government spending on infrastructure. Is there an economic need for cities, urban areas specifically, that is a little different than the country at large right now?

MAYOR MICK CORNETT: Yeah, I think there is. You know, a lot of cities are not only struggling, you know, they're suffocating under long-term labor issues and operational issues that rely on state governments for a lot of their funding. And if state governments are cutting back, state governments are probably not cutting back first on state government spending. They're probably cutting back on the money they give to cities. But a lot of cities are hurting because state governments are hurting.

INSKEEP: Why is it that you think that Oklahoma City is doing so much better than many other places?

CORNETT: Well, we've invested conservatively. We, for the last 20 years, have additional penny sales tax that we've invested in a lot of capital projects and we've improved the quality of life. And so with that increase of quality of life comes this incredible human capital. Highly educated 20-somethings are moving to Oklahoma City in large numbers. The Kauffman Foundation recently disclosed that we were the most entrepreneurial city in the country, most start-ups per capita. And so if you have the bright and the young and the talented moving to your city, that's a great labor pool that your entrepreneurs and job creators are going to be able to tap into.

INSKEEP: You're talking about attracting the so-called creative class, as the writer Richard Florida would call them, right?

CORNETT: Yeah. That's a good part of it, absolutely.

INSKEEP: And you say that you did that in part by raising taxes to make sure that services were adequate.

CORNETT: Well, it's not just services. It's amenities. You know, it's sports arenas, it's performing arts centers. You know, we put a canal through our entertainment district. We've built dams and built waterfronts, you know, for our river. There's a lot to the quality of life that a person is looking for. And we've been able to convince the people that live in the suburbs that the vibrancy of the core is directly proportionate to the quality of life in the suburbs. And so the people in the suburbs are willing to invest in downtown. And it's all paid for. You know, there's no debt on any of these items. So it's just a different culture. It's hard to necessarily explain unless you're in Oklahoma City and can see it. But you can feel it when you're here.

INSKEEP: OK. What does it take then for Republicans in this conservative state, part of which you represent, to sign on to raising taxes in order to make those kinds of investments and amenities?

CORNETT: Well, we've built up political capital in that we have done what we said we were going to do. And so by, you know, a series of limited taxation - a penny on the dollar sales tax, for instance - for a certain number of years, we have explained to voters what that money would be used for, we have built those projects debt-free, and then the taxation ended. And generally, as the capacity ends for that penny on the dollar, we have gone back to them and they have allowed us to continue to have new ideas and to bring new ideas to the table that they support.

INSKEEP: Oh, now, that's interesting. This penny on the dollar keeps expiring and you keep having another vote, which requires you to build public support for it again, and you get that public support.

CORNETT: That's right. You know, it's very fragile but, you know, we have the confidence of the majority of the voters today - and we're very careful not to do anything that might jeopardize it - because, you know, these types of government spending, you know, especially in a conservative city like Oklahoma City, come under great scrutiny. And you know, we do a lot to try and make sure that we spend it wisely.

INSKEEP: Do you feel as you watch the presidential campaign that so far the candidates have been addressing your issues as a mayor?

CORNETT: No. I don't see them looking at the idea that cities need to be able to control their own destiny. I don't see Washington in general or these candidates in generate talking about city issues. They talk a lot about health care, which affect people that live in cities, they talk a lot about the jobs, you know, in America, but you know, city governments can do much, much better if they just had a little bit more discretion on their own. You've got a lot of big cities dealing with unfunded mandates and at the same time trying to deal with long-term capital issues that there's just no escape. If you're in a big city on the East Coast, chances are you've got deferred maintenance that leaves you upside down for as long as you can see. And I don't see Washington even beginning to address those types of things.

INSKEEP: Mayor Cornett, thanks very much.

CORNETT: You bet. Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: Mick Cornett is the mayor of Oklahoma City and the national president of the Republican Mayors Association. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.