With less than a week before the Republican primary, the race for a post on the Oklahoma Corporation Commission has turned negative, with accusations of bank bailouts and who is the most liked by an environmental group among the subjects of competing ads.
Running for a position on the three-member commission are former House Speaker Todd Hiett, 46, and term-limited Sen. Cliff Branan, 52. They will replace Patrice Douglas, who is running in the Republican primary for the 5th Congressional District.
No Democrats or independents filed for the post, so the winner of the June 24 primary will take office in January.
The candidates’ first-round of ads were focused on introducing themselves to voters. Last week, Branan rolled out a commercial highlighting Hiett’s service on the board of Bristow-based SpiritBank.
The ad said the bank took “$30 million in federal bailout money” and missed several payments to the government that “cost taxpayers millions.”
SpiritBank participated in the Treasury Department’s Capital Purchase Program in 2009 following the financial crisis. The program helped inject capital into more than 700 financial institutions nationwide by granting preferred shares to the Treasury Department.
SpiritBank was one of five Oklahoma banks participating in the program, which was part of the broader $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program. The bank gave the Treasury preferred stock in exchange for $30 million from the Capital Purchase Program. After several deferred repayments, Treasury began auctioning the shares. It found a bidder for SpiritBank shares in October, receiving $9.6 million.
The American Bankers Association doesn’t regard participation in the Capital Purchase Program as a bailout since the government received preferred shares in participating banks. Several Oklahoma lawmakers, including Republican Sens. Jim Inhofe and Tom Coburn, have called the TARP program a bailout. Inhofe voted against it, while Coburn voted for it.
Hiett countered in a commercial that SpiritBank didn’t take bailout money and accused Branan of “lying to hide his own record.”
In an interview, Hiett said there has been lots of confusion over the aims of the TARP program, which was approved quickly in 2008 and contained multiple provisions. He said the Capital Purchase Program was offered only to healthy banks.
“It was a program where they asked healthy banks to deploy capital to try to help in these communities to keep businesses moving at a time that the economy was tumbling,” Hiett said Tuesday. “There was some thought that would help. I don’t necessarily agree with that methodology of helping the economy, but as community bank, we do what we can to help. It was absolutely not a bailout. They purchased preferred stock in the bank, and for us to redeem that, we have to buy the stock back.”
Hiett’s campaign released a commercial saying Branan had a 100-percent rating from the Sierra Club, a “radical environmentalist group that threatens Oklahoma jobs and affordable energy.” It said Branan authored a bill “surrendering our energy policy to Obama,” referring to a bill Branan introduced in 2011 that promoted natural gas generation for electric utilities.
The Oklahoma Sierra Club gave Branan a grade of C in 2012 and an A plus in 2013. He got an F in this year’s session. The group didn’t rate lawmakers in 2011, but it gave Branan a 100 percent rating in 2010.
David Ocamb, director of the Oklahoma chapter, said it gave Branan an F this year for his bill that would have put additional regulations on wind farms. Branan’s A plus last year was mostly for stopping a committee vote on a bill concerning Agenda 21, which some groups have equated with a United Nations conspiracy to take over environmental policy.
Pat McFerron, with Branan’s campaign, said when Hiett served in the House of Representatives, he had a higher Sierra Club rating than Branan in 2004. According to Project Vote Smart, Hiett’s rating was 33 percent, while Branan was at 30 percent in the Sierra Club rankings.
“There was a time when the Sierra Club was pro-natural gas, and Cliff Branan has supported natural gas and other energy development,” McFerron said. “But they’ve changed to where they’re against all fossil fuels, including natural gas, so they no longer agree with a pro-natural gas agenda that Cliff Branan has.”
Branan in 2011 introduced Senate Bill 300, which would have let utilities recover from ratepayers the costs of switching to natural gas from coal generation. The bill never made it out of committee.
Hiett said the bill was irresponsible because it encouraged closure of still-useful coal plants, allowing utilities to recover the costs.
“It gives the utilities wide-open authority to increase rates to pay for the plants that would be abandoned,” Hiett said in an interview. “You have to factor in that it costs two to three times more to produce electricity with natural gas than it does coal.”
Ocamb, with the Sierra Club, said the group isn’t endorsing a candidate in the Corporation Commission primary. He expressed disappointment at being dragged into the campaign.
“It’s disappointing that rather than focus on real issues, like the dramatic rise in the number of earthquakes in our state, the debate has shifted in this direction,” Ocamb said. “The Sierra Club will continue to stand up to big corporate interests and, unlike the political candidates in this race, is not beholden to their money. At least someone in Oklahoma is fighting for healthy air to breath, clean water to drink and a legacy to leave behind to our children and grandchildren.”
Fundraising reports filed Monday show Branan has raised more than $762,000 for the race through June 9, including $290,000 in personal loans. Hiett has raised more than $341,000 with $50,000 in personal loans.
In last-minute contribution reports filed after June 9, Branan reported another $33,000 in contributions by Tuesday.