Government incentives can become onerous things. Left without constant scrutiny, a once-viable and logical incentive can deteriorate into an insidious waste of taxpayer money. Sometimes, though, they work just as they were designed and stimulate an industry that provides income for Oklahoma. This is clearly the case with the Oklahoma Film Enhancement Rebate Program.
This program, begun with a mere $150,000, has generated millions of dollars in direct and indirect income to state coffers in the past nine years. It wasn't renewed by the 2013 Legislature the night before it adjourned. In addition to helter-skelter arguments against the bill, a few legislators, in a last-minute panic attack to defeat the measure, questioned the income figures reported by the Film Commission.
Senate Bill 1126 would have extended the ending date on the film program to 2024 and raised the cap on the film rebate fund to $8 million from $5 million. These funds are awarded to companies that agree to certain stipulations and produce films in Oklahoma — and only after the completion of filming.
Nearly 80 of these films have been shot since 2004. In addition to increasing the exposure of this beautiful state to national and international audiences, they've accounted for a 3-to-1 return in direct dollars. Hotels, restaurants and local labor pools have all been stimulated and generated substantial tax dollars in addition to the actual cash outlays of the film companies. In FY 2012, the $5 million rebate invested in six films created 512 jobs and returned $15 million to Oklahoma's economy.
Communities that have been the recipients of these efforts like them. Julie Daniels, a former mayor of Bartlesville, said the benefits of the film rebate program for her city “can be seen in the sale of goods and services, contract employment plus increased sales tax revenue. Especially important, it has given our local talent a chance to work in their hometown.”
We could learn from the experience of others. Two years ago, Texas lawmakers slashed the funds for a state incentive program. They rectified their mistake this year by allocating a record $95 million to attract the film industry. Fortunately, the sunset date on Oklahoma's film program isn't until July 1, 2014. So lawmakers have one more chance to make the right decision for Oklahoma.
Of course, programs such as this demand accountability. If lawmakers don't want to accept the reports of the individual agency as to the program's effectiveness, it's their responsibility to acquire empirical data that they will accept. This is how to get answers for questions of accuracy, not shortsighted and specious arguments followed by hurry-up legislation.
We have an incentive program that generates a return for the state. Let's hope lawmakers stop the theatrics and get down to this serious business — before the film industry packs up and takes the jobs to Texas.
Atkinson, a former member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, is a tourism commissioner for Oklahoma's 5th Congressional District.