For a governor who focuses more on running government like a business, few state agencies have received as much attention as that dedicated to starting new businesses in the state.
Governor Kevin Stitt’s proposed budget for this fiscal year targeted the Commerce Department for the largest funding increase of any state agency, a request the state legislature granted with more than $ 40 million in funding. additional expenses.
The legislature also approved dozens of bills the agency requested that not only offered additional funding to potential businesses, but also funneled some of the state’s investment funds to local businesses in need of capital.
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The focus on developing trade has been welcomed by the business community, especially as the pandemic has wreaked havoc on the economy here and across the country. But despite its success, the ministry has kept some of its efforts largely private.
Records reveal Commerce Department lobbies for trade incentives
Through a registration request that searched hundreds of Commerce Department emails and other documents, Oklahoman gained insight into the department’s purpose and mission, which over the past two years, included a significant change in the types of business incentives offered by the state.
The Oklahoman has also followed the legislation advocated by the Commerce Department to determine the agency’s top priorities.
What has been found is a department that views the state of Oklahoma as woefully behind the others when it comes to spurring new business and lagging behind when it comes to offering. access to capital.
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“Governor Stitt has stated on several occasions (and again on Monday during the State of State Address) that everything we do in state government must have a dotted line towards economic growth.” Commerce executive director Brent Kisling wrote in an agency-wide statement. email February 6, 2020, according to a copy received as part of a request for open files.
Even though the pandemic has occupied much of his government’s time for the past two years, Stitt has found ways to increase incentives for businesses and promote Oklahoma as “open for business” as parts of the countries were handling closures more aggressively.
“One of the most successful campaigns we’ve had at Commerce over the past few years has been the California strategy,” Kisling wrote in an agency-wide email on March 21, 2021. “This effort included research, billboards, digital ads in parts of the state to get businesses to consider leaving the coast to find the most.
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The department has also targeted Illinois as a possible state for stealing business.
“It’s another very anti-business state with companies looking for other places to operate,” Kisling wrote.
The agency seeks to push state investment in local venture capital
The emails showed Commerce staff lobbied for at least 30 bills in the last legislative session, ranging from efforts to modernize travel incentives at various offices in the department.
State agencies regularly lobby for bills, but it is difficult to find an agency that is more successful than the Commerce Department, as nearly all of its bills have been successfully passed by the legislature and signed by the governor. This included the Invest in Oklahoma Act, which encourages state government investments, such as the Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust Fund and the Teachers’ Retirement Investment Fund, to invest at least 5% of its investments in Oklahoma-based venture capital funds.
The Commerce Department had initially sought to make mandatory the investment of 5% of the funds.
“My first blushing thought would be that for the legislation to have teeth it would have to be a warrant,” Kisling wrote in an email on Feb.9, 2021.
But the tenure was changed to a recommendation after some lawmakers refused, which Kisling agreed to, telling his staff they could fight for a term in future sessions.
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Kisling began last year’s session by telling his staff that he analyzed the 44 business incentives offered by the agency and came up with 20 invoices that eliminated some and changed others.
“Last week, the Council for Community and Economic Research released a report saying Oklahoma has more business incentives than any other state,” Kisling wrote on Feb. 22, 2021. “Although that’s a good headline to to have, in truth, with so many incentives, our message is polluted.
New business acceleration program
The agency also gained legislative approval for a business acceleration program, though details have been kept for the most part private.
In response to questions last June about the new acceleration program, for which the state legislature had pledged $ 15 million, Josh McGoldrick, chief of staff for the department, simply said, “I didn’t. a lot of information at this point.
However, in an email to McGoldrick, Kisling shared a presentation with information about the acceleration program, but urged McGoldrick not to share it with the media.
The 10-page presentation included details of possible acceleration programs, including a 90-day “boot camp” for entrepreneurs, $ 120,000 in seed capital for each business that completes the program and the goal. to establish an accelerator in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. .
Melissa Houston, a consultant hired by the Commerce Department to help with business recruiting projects, also urged the presentation to be kept private.
“Do NOT use the slide deck though,” Houston wrote in an email, referring to the presentation. “I would be more generic because it’s a work in progress.”
This story is provided in part through a grant from the Kirkpatrick Foundation. To support work like this, please consider purchasing a digital subscription today at https://cm.oklahoman.com/specialoffer/.