In maybe the reddest of red states, it's hard to ignore the sturdy base of Oklahoma City's much-lauded and ongoing renaissance: a broadly popular tax.
The apparent juxtaposition was on full display last summer, when Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett gave a modified version of his usual stump speech at the Republican National Convention in Florida. Cornett highlighted the city's investment in its infrastructure in front of an audience that spent much of the rest of the week lambasting government spending.
Cornett says the key is that Oklahoma City residents like to have localized control over their taxes.
“It's because the kind of government I think they like is the kind they have a say on,” said Cornett, adding that people don't feel that level of involvement and participation in the national political arena.
At the national and state government levels, taxes are decided by elected officials whose votes are only considered a representation of the views of their constituents. But in Oklahoma City, issues like the MAPS tax votes have presented voters with a clear plan for the use of their money, and the voters themselves choose whether they're willing to pay.
“In Oklahoma City, what we've done is allow people to determine their tax rate,” Cornett said. “When you think about it, by allowing them to vote up or down on a series of taxes over the years ... we've allowed them to determine what comfortable level of taxation they're willing to pay.”
Penny sales tax spurred development
It was in 1993 that Oklahoma City residents first voted for the MAPS tax, a penny sales tax that the city credits with spurring more than $5 billion in combined public and private development.
City residents went on to approve an extension of the original MAPS tax to finish those projects, then MAPS for Kids, renovations for what is now called Chesapeake Energy Arena to help lure the Thunder and now MAPS 3.
“They're pleased with the results of their taxation,” Cornett said of city residents continuing to vote for the taxes. “That's the logical conclusion, that they're getting their money's worth.”
Cornett said an additional key to local support of the tax is that the debt-free spending is only on capital projects, not social programs. MAPS provides the bricks and mortar, and the private sector does the rest.
“What government does best is build stuff,” Cornett concluded.