Norman delegation travels to Washington D.C. to meet with lawmakers

Norman Mayor Lynne Miller, left, and Norman Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Scott Martin, center, along with OU and business community representatives, meet with Sen. Jim Inhofe last week in Washington, D.C.

A Norman delegation traveled to Washington, D.C., last week to meet with federal lawmakers.

The annual fly-in group included representatives from the Norman Chamber of Commerce, the business community, the University of Oklahoma, the Norman Arts Council, Mayor Lynne Miller and city council member Robert Castleberry, who hoped to connect with Oklahoma’s national lawmakers and talk about issues affecting Norman.

Chamber president and CEO Scott Martin said, in that regard, the three-day trip was a big success.

“We went with an agenda in place, not only from the chamber of commerce, but we went to advocate on behalf of the city of Norman’s federal agenda,” he said. “Plus, Norman Next had created a federal agenda this year, so we took the three of those with us and representatives from all three organizations. We were able to talk about issues that are important to us.”

Martin said there was plenty of optimism to draw from those meetings, especially regarding Main Street fairness issues.

“We had a really positive response about the Main Street fairness issue and leveling the playing field when it comes to internet business and brick and mortar,” he said. “There are some vehicles that are out there that appear to be gaining traction, in addition to the case the Supreme Court is going to be hearing this spring.”

Martin said the prevailing wisdom is that the court case will be the key to opening the door for cities and states to create legislation to recoup online tax dollars.

The case could overturn the precedent-setting case Quill v. North Dakota, which prevents states from requiring remote sellers to collect use tax from in-state customers, unless the seller has a physical presence there.

South Dakota is one of 13 states that has enacted laws to impose such taxes on out-of-state outlets and is asking the court to overturn the 1992 decision.

“There also appears to be some legislation coming that will help correct this issue,” Martin said. “That was very exciting to hear.”

What does that mean for Norman? The city’s sales tax numbers have continued to suffer as more consumers gravitate toward online marketplaces. Miller said taxing those purchases and bringing that money back to Norman is crucial to the city’s long-term economic outlook.

“They’re all aware that Oklahoma may be the only state in the country that chooses to primarily fund their cities with sales tax,” Miller said. “So, it’s a particular burden on us as a city in Oklahoma.

Miller said the group also addressed Community Development Block Grant cuts, affordable housing and water reclamation.

• Water reclamation: Martin said turning gray water back into drinking water through Lake Thunderbird tributaries will improve the health of the lake and allow the city to retain drinkable water that is currently being fed into the Canadian River.

“We’re not able to do that today and we need [the Department of Environmental Quality] to authorize that, and they’ve been working for years now to establish rules to make that happen,” Martin said. “They have recently adopted new rule,s and part of the rule-making process is approval from the State Legislature. So, they’ll be seeking that this session. From there, it’s our understanding that they will need to be approved by the EPA.”

Of course, Martin said implementation wouldn’t be automatic, but the door could soon be open. He said EPA administrator Scott Pruitt understands the issue and is an ally in that regard.

Miller said she is wary of an EPA bent on deregulating for the sake of deregulating but had some positive takeaways on the reuse issue.

“Talking to Scott Pruitt, I stuck pretty much to what I had gone there to talk about. and that was water reuse,” she said. “The DEQ has permitted us, but we need authorization at the national level.”

• Trump’s infrastructure plan: President Donald Trump’s infrastructure plan was another point of focus. More of a collection of bills in various stages of production, the plan has been criticized as lacking focus and direction.

“We have a lot of questions about the infrastructure bill and what that’s really going to mean for cities,” Miller said. “Does it mean we’re just going to be supplanting funds we were getting before and just calling it something else, or is this really going to be a help?

"The concern is that it’s going to be highly reliant on state, local and private funding. If that’s the case, are we going to be getting as much as we got before?”

Though far from defined, Sen. Jim Inhofe, as the chair of Transportation Subcommittee, will have a large hand in drafting infrastructure legislation. He said the plan will target road and bridge funding to continue to boost road projects in cities like Norman, where the $70 million Lindsey Street bridge project was completed in 2017, thanks in large part to federal funding.

Martin credited Inhofe for his efforts to improve Oklahoma roads, and Inhofe said that remains one of his top goals within the infrastructure plan.

“One of the few things we do right in Washington is how we handle our transportation reauthorization bills,” Inhofe said. “In the state of Oklahoma, we have eight transportation districts and we charge each one with the responsibility of setting the priorities within their district, recognizing that they know better what their needs are than we do in Washington."

While roads and bridges remain a top priority, Inhofe said the plan is all encompassing.

“The stimulus is going to be $200 billion and [Trump] is going to use that for leverage to bring this up to a $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan,” Inhofe said. “This isn’t just roads and highways. It’s every kind of infrastructure … The president has singled out transportation and infrastructure as priorities, and we’re going to be doing that.”

Though the plan could include some rail funding, Inhofe said it will likely lean more toward roads and bridges. He said that plan will include investment in rural broadband, a longtime issue in Ward 5, where rural Norman residents have limited broadband options.

“We’re going to make sure that rural areas have access,” Inhofe said. “We don’t want kids growing up in Oklahoma without the same basic talents that are taught all around the country.”

Ultimately, Miller said she feels Norman’s voice was heard.

“I feel like we have some strong support with our congressional delegation,” she said. “I really do. Even though I may disagree politically, Inhofe has been extremely helpful in support of our infrastructure and our military bases. I think they’re supportive of Oklahoma, and I do think they listen to us.”

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Mack Burke is an investigative reporter and award-winning feature writer and columnist for The Norman Transcript. An OU alumnus, he has lived in Norman since 2003.