Woodward, Okla. —
The Oklahoma economy has made some long strides over the past few years, according to State Secretary of Commerce Dave Lopez.
Lopez was in Woodward on Wednesday to speak at the Northwest Oklahoma Alliance (NwOA) quarterly meeting.
NwOA is comprised of community and business leaders from across Northwest Oklahoma who have a common goal of promoting economic growth and development across the region.
OKLAHOMA'S ECONOMIC STATISTICS
In his presentation, Lopez shared some statistics about the state's economy which his office had compiled as part of Gov. Mary Fallin's "half-time report," as she is halfway through her 4-year term.
The Secretary of Commerce began by looking at employment numbers.
"Where we rank in overall employment growth from 2011 to now is 4th out of all the states," he said. "First is North Dakota, which as I've said before I think we should get credit for because it's all Oklahoma companies doing business up there. Then it's Utah, Texas and then us."
In 2012 alone, Lopez said that Oklahoma's workforce grew by 37,000 people.
"When we're looking just at labor force numbers and how much they grew, we're 7th in the nation. And that's by the overall number, not based on the state's population, but just the sheer amount of growth in the workforce," he said.
That growth helps to keep unemployment levels in Oklahoma among some of the lowest in the nation.
"Overall Oklahoma is at 5.1 percent unemployment and the nation is at 7.8 percent," Lopez said, adding that "for states with 2 million or more in population, we're number 1 with lowest unemployment."
He said job growth has also helped the state recover from the recession.
"Oklahoma is one out of only 5 states whose job numbers have grown back to where they were before the recession," he said.
The business and industry activity in Northwest Oklahoma has played a key role in those job numbers, Lopez said.
"When we're counting up these statewide numbers, we know that in part it is your region that's setting the pace," he said as he addressed the NwOA members. "I don't think our state would be at 5.1 percent unemployment if it wasn't for the fact that I think, out of the 17 counties in your area, if we extend it far south enough to include Canadian County, 15 counties have under 4 percent unemployment rates."
And job numbers aren't the only numbers that are up in Oklahoma, Lopez said.
He said the state saw a 9 percent increase in median household income in 2011, which were the latest figures he had available. He noted this meant Oklahoma had "the largest growth" in household income for that year, making the state "a far outlier," especially when nationwide the median household income saw a slight drop in 2011.
"That means folks in Oklahoma are becoming more prosperous," Lopez said.
WHAT HAS LED TO THAT ECONOMIC SUCCESS
The Commerce Secretary said there are several factors that have played into Oklahoma's recent economic success.
"The state has done a good job with its own fiscal management," he said, referring to how state leaders handled the $500 million budget shortfall in 2011.
While the state had to dip into its reserves and practically depleted the rainy day fund to just $2 to meet that shortfall, Lopez said the state has recovered so much that in the next month the rainy day fund will be at $650 million, which will be a state record.
"That's quite an achievement in a little over 24 months to go from a $500 million deficit to having a savings account bigger than we've ever had," he said.
The growth in the rainy day fund has been bolstered by the fact that "our revenues for the state continue to grow, even though they've slowed down in the last quarter," Lopez said.
Another factor in the state's economic success, Lopez said, is that "policy makers have given us and let us keep tools such as the Quality Jobs Program."
According to the Oklahoma Department of Commerce's website, the "Oklahoma Quality Jobs Program allows qualifying businesses which are creating new quality jobs to receive a special incentive to locate or expand in Oklahoma."
Lopez said the state Department of Commerce awarded 52 contracts as part of Quality Jobs Program last year, 90 percent of which were awarded to companies in Oklahoma.
"So it's not just for recruiting new businesses, but for retention purposes as well," he said.
Lopez said that Gov. Fallin has also played an important role in helping the state to realize economic growth over the past 2 years. He pointed to Fallin's work on issues such as workers compensation reform, aerospace and engineering tax credits, higher education incentive programs, transportation improvements, and compressed natural gas (CNG) initiatives, among others.
In particular he discussed her efforts with income tax reform, noting "she worked to trim personal income tax in the state by a quarter of a percent and I believe she will work to trim it even more to help keep more money in your pockets so you can invest it back in the state economy."
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
To help ensure that the state continues to see economic growth in the years to come, Lopez said the Department of Commerce has identified 5 priority "eco-systems," or economic areas, where to focus its development efforts.
These 5 priority areas are those in which the state is primed for business growth, he said.
Lopez said the eco-systems that "matter most to Oklahoma currently" are 1) energy, in all forms from biofuels to wind; 2) agriculture; 3) aerospace and defense, including the state's 5 military installations; 4) financial and data services, such as the Google data center near Pryor; and 5) transportation and warehousing.
And in working to develop these 5 areas, Lopez said the Oklahoma Department of Commerce will "continue to focus on businesses that are already here" in addition to looking at recruitment.
That's because of the 37,000 jobs that were added in the state last year, "more than 90 percent were for companies that are already here, the rest were from startups and new businesses," he said.
"So taking care of our current customers will be priority number 1," Lopez said.