Wednesday, October 9th, 2013

Oklahoma City’s Mick Cornett and the New Generation of Republican Mayors

For a whole host of reasons, many of them historical, there aren’t very many Republican big city mayors. I’ve also argued that the current national Republican mindset leads to urban residents giving them the brush-off.

However, there are some interesting Republican mayors out there. And they are often blending traditional conservative government approaches with a focus on service delivery and quality of life improvements. One of them is Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett. I saw him speak at the CEOs for Cities meeting in Boston, and he told an impressive story of what they’ve been doing in OKC.

To me the ultimate policy synthesis Cornett brought to the table is MAPS-3. That’s a $777M public works program with heavy quality of life investments in items like parks that Cornett convinced the voters to approve. The kicker is that in true fiscal conservative style, this is actually being paid for with cash, not debt.

Kasia Zabawa, Deputy Director of the Manhattan Institute’s Center for State and Local Leadership, recently traveled to Oklahoma City to interview Cornett. The video is below. If it doesn’t display for you, click here. If you’d rather read (it’s faster), there’s a transcript posted at the Manhattan Institute’s Public Sector Inc. site. I’ll include a few excerpts below the video.

Some quotes:

My two predecessors and I would certainly call ourselves “conservatives” and we do not believe in large government spending. But if you can create a city where people want to live and if you can create a strong economy, then you can develop a private sector that can afford a lot of the social spending that a large community needs. If you can be a partner in building a strong private sector, you’re going to be able to take care of a lot of the social needs that most people equate with tax-and-spend government.
When it gets down to city government, there aren’t a lot of traditional partisan issues, and that comment reflects the fact that what a citizen really wants is their pothole fixed, and they don’t care if a Republican fixes it or a Democrat fixes it; if it’s not fixed, it’s most likely not the result of partisan bickering, it’s an inability to run a government.
You wouldn’t necessarily think a string of Republican mayors would be pushing penny on the dollar sales taxes but indeed we have. In retrospect–it didn’t necessarily feel this way at the time–that first one was passed out of desperation. I mean, we were desperate for something better. We had created a city that couldn’t keep its young people, that was losing jobs, and that really didn’t have a quality of life that we were proud of.

Topics: Economic Development, Public Policy, Talent Attraction, Urban Culture
Cities: Oklahoma City

2 Responses to “Oklahoma City’s Mick Cornett and the New Generation of Republican Mayors”

  1. Chris Barnett says:

    There’s no question that OKC is a red city in a really red state. The oil and gas industry is clearly in charge. (Chesapeake and Devon, major producers, are both headquartered there).

    I’m not sure how “conservative” it is for OKC to have annexed enough territory to make it physically larger than LA (606 sq. mi. OKC vs. 468 LA). I guess they’re prepared for massive growth, though the large-lot suburban character of outlying development suggests that the now-empty land area won’t be settled very densely.

    There is also a long-term issue with public water supply; part of the reason OKC annexed so much territory was to capture several reservoir sites. Even then, water has to be imported from SE Oklahoma in growing volume. See

  2. CGHill says:

    I must point out here that OKC used to be bigger than it is now: the big annexation drive began after World War II, and reached a peak of nearly 680 square miles, spilling into five counties. All the annexed land in McClain County, southwest of the airport, has since been deannexed. There are some outlying areas where city services are admittedly sparse. But you should also know that the city’s general fund is financed entirely by sales tax and fees — according to state law, the county collects all property tax, and doles out only enough to the municipalities to cover debt service — so there’s a reason to bring these huge tracts of land under city control.

    Besides the water rights to the southeast, OKC also owns water to the northwest: early this year, following two years of severe drought, the city drew down Canton Lake to about 10 percent of its capacity, thus adequately filling its own local reservoirs; little did they know that rainfall in 2013 would be far above normal. (Forty-eight inches so far; normal for the entire year is 36.) The watering restrictions imposed during the Canton drawdown are considered permanent; Canton has recovered only to about 20 percent, since rain in the northwest hasn’t been quite so plentiful.

    Most of the MAPS 3 improvements, like those of the original MAPS twenty years ago, have been in the city’s core. (MAPS 2, subtitled “MAPS for Kids,” was a half-billion-dollar package of facility upgrades for public schools.) Homes in the core are now in demand, and the city, which contains just under half the metro-area population, is getting about half the area population growth. And residents are generally happy with the way the place is run, though they’d be happier if the mayor, irrespective of political party, could do something about all those damned potholes, and maybe get the buses to run later than 8 pm.

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