By Gean Atkinson
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — 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.
But sometimes, they also work just as they were designed and stimulate an industry that provides income for Oklahoma.
And that is clearly the case with the Oklahoma Film Enhancement Rebate Program. This program, which was started with a mere $150,000 and has generated millions of dollars in direct and indirect income to our state coffers over the last nine years, was not renewed by the legislature the night before it adjourned sine die. 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.
SB1126 would have extended the sunset, or ending date, on the film program to 2024 and raised the cap on the film rebate fund from $5 million to $8 million. These funds are awarded to companies who agree to certain stipulations and produce films in Oklahoma and only after the completion of photography.
Nearly 80 of these films have been shot since 2004 and, in addition to increasing the exposure of our beautiful state to national and international audiences have accounted for a return for our state of 3:1 in direct dollars. Hotels, restaurants, local labor pools have all been stimulated and generated substantial tax dollars in addition to the actual cash outlays of the film companies. In fact, in FY 2012 alone, the $5 million rebate invested in six films created 512 jobs and returned $15 million in direct dollars to Oklahoma’s economy. That’s math everyone can understand.
Apparently, the communities that have been the recipients’ of these efforts like them. According to Julie Daniels, former mayor of Bartlesville, “The benefits of the film rebate program in Bartlesville can be seen in the sale of goods and services, contract employment plus increased sales tax revenue. Especially important, it has given our local a 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 their film incentive program. They quickly rectified y their mistake this year by allocating a record $95 million to attract the film industry to their state.
Fortunately, the sunset date on Oklahoma’s film program is not 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 and if the legislature does not want to accept the reports of the individual agency as to the program’s effectiveness, it is their responsibility to acquire the empirical data that they will accept. That is the answer to questions of accuracy, not short-sighted and specious arguments followed by hurry-up legislation.
Finally, 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. It makes good business sense for Oklahoma.
Gean B. Atkinson is a former member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives and is currently a Tourism Commissioner for Oklahoma’s Fifth Congressional District.