Prosperity district bill off the table for 2017

By: Catherine Sweeney The Journal Record April 12, 2017

OKLAHOMA CITY – If Oklahoma legislators vote to allow prosperity districts, it won’t be this year.

State Sen. Eddie Fields, R-Wynona, moved to postpone the measure creating the districts for the year, saying it was too controversial a measure for legislators to tackle during dire budget talks.

House Bill 2132 would have created special areas where any resident – individual, commercial or corporate – would face looser regulations. Governing boards would dictate the rules, replacing those of state and local governments. The measure made it through the House committee and off the floor. Once it was engrossed, Senate leadership assigned it to the Rules Committee. Chairman Fields decided against hearing it during Wednesday morning’s meeting, the bill’s last chance for 2016.

Over the next six weeks, the Legislature will have to take on another near-billion-dollar budget shortfall for fiscal 2018, putting more pressure on members. They’ll have to decide whether to compensate for the drop with cuts, new revenue or a combination of both. That’s going to be a challenging task, Fields said, and lawmakers need to focus on it.

HB 2132 could make that difficult, he said. In addition to any arguments the policy itself could have spurred, the bill spanned 88 pages, and the language was complex.

“It would have been very controversial,” he said. “There would have been a lot of questions. We didn’t really need to have a distraction.”

Oklahoma was the last state to vote against the measure, which a national free-market organization has pushed in a handful of other states. Houston-based Compact for America pitched the plan to conservative states, including Mississippi and North Dakota. Nick Dranias, the organization’s president and the bill’s author, said that the measure could especially help states with large rural areas. It could give state economic developers a leg up while they try to promote tracts that might not otherwise be appealing. In those states, legislators killed their bills in committees. Oklahoma was the only one to pass the measure to one of the chamber floors.

House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, had been pushing the bill through the House, saying it could be a way to raise income for residents, and consequentially revenues for the state. He carried the bill in his chamber, where it passed through committee and off the floor by a comfortable margin. State Sen. Kyle Loveless, R-Oklahoma City, sponsored the counterpart, Senate Bill 548. It passed out of committee, but it didn’t make it to the Senate floor before the deadline.

Fields’ decision came after several statewide organizations publicly criticized the bill, among them the Oklahoma Municipal League, the League of Women Voters, the Association of Central Oklahoma Governments and the Stewardship Council. Environmental organizations such as Save the Illinois River and the Oklahoma Conservation Coalition also came out against the bill.

Drew Edmondson is the chairman of the Oklahoma Stewardship Council, which originally formed to fight State Question 777. He said that residents voted against the measure because it took accountability away from large corporations, in that case, factory farmers.

“They soundly defeated 777,” he said. “And then the Legislature comes along with an idea, instead of doing it statewide, doing it section by section.”

He said many House Bill 2132 opponents have the same concerns as before: Looser regulations could mean more pollution.

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