Thorns Mar Oklahoma Vision of Everything Roses

Article excerpt

A host of newspaper stories could be gleaned from Gov. David Walters' State of the State speech this week. Once again, I was thankful and relieved that printed copies were provided to the press.

The address was 18 single-spaced pages long, and Walters spoke for nearly an hour. He did a good job of taking an honest look at Oklahoma. Until people quit kidding themselves, the state's not going to be able to make progress.

"We are a small state in the middle of the country, 29th in economic size, and 43rd in individual income," he said.

A Gallup poll commissioned last year by the Oklahoma Department of Tourism and Recreation found that 22 percent of the nation's public had no impression of Oklahoma. The most frequent description was "a dry and dusty place," Walters said.

"Take a deep breath, strip away the political rhetoric and take a hard look at Oklahoma," he invited. "You see a state that lacks capital for its businesses and for growth.

"Our population is declining in the west and northwest. We have large pockets of extreme poverty in the southeast, and two major urban areas that rarely cooperate."

Oklahoma's economy is still based on the sale of raw commodities and its industry is dominated by low value-added manufacturing, the governor said. The energy sector has shrunk, and Oklahoma workers make only 82 cents for every dollar earned by the nation's average worker, he said.

"We are on the verge of being number one among all the states in incarceration rates, divorce rates and child abuse, and we are competing with only a handful of states to be last in health expenditures, teachers' salaries and job creation," Walters said.

"Is this Oklahoma? Yes, undeniably, all that is a part of who we are," he said. "It's a part we're not proud of, and it's a part that drove me to run for office just like I suspect it drove many of you to offer yourselves for public service."

Walters set 'em up, then came back with the positives.

Oklahoma was ranked number one by U.S. News and World Report magazine for economic improvement in 1992. The state is home of the top U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army bases in the nation. The General Motors Corp. assembly plant in Oklahoma City last year was cited by J.D. Powers and Associates for being the highest quality plant in North America, and the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. plant in Lawton was named most efficient among that corporation's facilities, Walters said.

He started talking about findings of the Oklahoma Development Strategy Project that was established last year, to do the "vision thing" for the state. Here's what they came up with: The current commodity-based Oklahoma economy is not powerful enough to propel the state to a more prosperous future. Oil and gas in 1923 generated 70 percent of state income, dropping to 20 percent by 1982 and is forecast to dwindle to 5.6 percent of state revenue next year, Walters said. In the future, good-paying jobs will be information intensive. Many of these will be in the services sector as well as the manufacturing sector. Distance and location are becoming increasingly irrelevant as technology supersedes distance. Walters said he witnessed a German language class beamed from Oklahoma State University's telecommunication center to 40 states, 240 high schools, and 9,000 students. The communities, regions and states that get organized first and best to live and work in the information age will win the race to the new jobs. Being first and best in the information age will take physical improvements and human resource development, he said. The many information age businesses that are already thriving in Oklahoma offer powerful proof that we can be successful, Walters said, but the number of information-based jobs needs to be multiplied. …