October 9, 2011

Voters Prioritize Quality Jobs Results

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Oklahoma voters say they think it’s a good idea for the state to provide financial incentives to private employers, but they have mixed feelings about the track record of Oklahoma’s premier job-creation program.

A survey by SoonerPoll.com on behalf of Oklahoma Watch showed that 34.6 percent of likely voters said the 18-year-old Oklahoma Quality Jobs program has been very successful or somewhat successful at accomplishing its goals. A slightly larger percentage, 37.1 percent, said they considered it very or somewhat unsuccessful.

Since the poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.04 percentage points, that’s just about a dead heat.

“I don’t like to spend tax dollars unnecessarily; nobody does,” said poll participant Charlene Finchum of Mustang. “But we’re in such a financial mess in this country, with so many people out of work…”

Finchum, 63, said her son lost his six-figure sales job two years ago and was unable to find comparable work in Oklahoma. He recently moved out of state to continue his job search.

“So I’m all for tax dollars going to companies that will create jobs and put people to work,” she said.

Launched in 1993, the Quality Jobs program makes cash payments to manufacturers and other firms that create jobs by opening new facilities or expanding existing operations in Oklahoma.

The Oklahoma Watch poll, conducted in late July and early August, described the program and asked the question: “Do you think the Quality Jobs program has been successful or unsuccessful in its mission to create jobs in Oklahoma?” Some participants elaborated on their responses in follow-up interviews this week.

“I just think we need to create new jobs, and this would be an incentive to the companies to want to do this,” said 74-year-old Betty Welch of Helena. “It think it is a good use of our money.”

“No,” countered Preston Marshall, 62, a retired Department of Corrections employee in Tulsa. “I don’t think the state should pay them anything. I think the economy needs to turn around, but I don’t think it’s going to turn around by giving away money. I don’t see it working. Do you see it working?”

The mixed opinions expressed by poll respondents about Quality Jobs contrasts with more supportive views of job creation incentives in general.

In the Oklahoma Watch poll, when told that the state tax code contains about 480 tax credits, exemptions and other incentives, 51 percent of likely voters endorsed the view that “some individuals, corporations, interest groups and associations should receive tax breaks.”

In a separate SoonerPoll.com survey commissioned by the State Chamber of Oklahoma, 85 percent of respondents said “yes” when asked whether the state should “continue to offer business incentives to help attract and retain jobs and investment in Oklahoma.”

SoonerPoll.com CEO Bill Shapard said the contrasting responses may be attributable in part to terminology. He said some people may express support when the term “incentive” is used, but respond more critically when they hear the term “tax break.”

Unlike most incentive programs, Quality Jobs does not provide tax breaks to participants. Instead, it makes cash payments to qualifying companies. But the effect on state revenue is the same: In both cases, the incentives reduce the amount of money available for other state programs.

Some people appear to support the general concept of providing financial incentives for job creation, Shapard said. But they may have a less favorable view of existing programs, a few of which have been marred by widely publicized abuses.

“People are saying yes, we want government to stimulate business,” Shapard said.At the same time, “the public is basically saying we need to evaluate them not on their intent, but on the results. So far, the results are mixed, so it’s not surprising that public opinion is mixed.”

Allen Leaird, a poll respondent from Coalgate, appears to be a case in point.

Leaird is a community action agency official who has been involved in projects financed by tax credits, and he supports the use of state revenue to subsidize private sector initiatives.

But he’s not convinced that the Quality Jobs program is producing enough benefits to justify its cost, which has totaled more than $700 million over the years.

“I never really saw that it developed a lot of jobs like everyone said,” Leaird said. “I think it’s a great theory. I’d just like to see what the results have been.”

Even Finchum, who likes the idea of subsidizing job creation that wouldn’t occur otherwise, said she worries that some of the payments wind up going to firms that would have hired people no matter what.

“Most of the companies that move in, they have their employees in place before they even move,” she said.