A Detriment No Longer? Some Business Leaders No Longer See Need for State Tort Reform in Okla

Article excerpt

After more than two decades of lawmakers battling to pass serious tort reform, those particular Oklahoma Legislature trenches have remained relatively quiet this session, a fact some executives attribute to bottom-line economics.

"It's not a huge part of our business," said Larry Brandon, vice president of technology and general manager of Red Devil Inc., a Tulsa company that has manufactured caulk and other building products in Pryor since 1974.

While worries over product liability or workers' compensation never go away, Brandon considered the biggest concerns facing most businessmen in Oklahoma's strong economy revolve around getting enough workers, not tort reform.

"Look around you," he said. "There are help-wanted signs everywhere."

That echoed the mood of several business executives across the state. With bustling energy, agriculture and manufacturing sectors fueling Oklahoma's economy, tort reform simply isn't the deterrent to business recruitment or expansion that it once might have been.

"I think we've got enough positive things in this state to outweigh tort reform," said Sanders Mitchell, administrator of the MidAmerica Industrial Park in Pryor.

In January, Gatorade started production at its new $180 million, 1.4 million-square-foot production in Pryor, and Google contractors worked to enlarge an 84,000-square-foot building that Internet giant bought at the industrial park to house a data center. In both cases, Mitchell said company officials focused on finding available power, water, sewer, land and employment.

"Tort reform didn't come up," he said.

Since August, Max McKnight has sought to recruit several businesses to the new 300-acre Chickasha Airport Industrial Park. While he sees tort reform as an obvious issue, the economic director of the Chickasha Area Economic Development Authority said none of the companies he spoke with - including one now in final negotiations - expressed concern with Oklahoma's legal system.

"What I find here, and what we talk a lot about, are available labor, transportation, ease of access, what type of transportation - do you have an airport, do you have rail, do you have interstate, those things - available utilities, those type of things, I think, are the big drivers of decisions," he said.

Keith O. Bridges, director of business and industry recruitment for the Great Plains Technology Center in Lawton, said tort reform doesn't make the list.

"I tell you what they used to bring up: right to work - and they don't bring that up anymore," said the 14-year development veteran, referring to the labor legislation adopted in 2001. "We don't have enough people. We're scraping the barrel to bring people to work and it's not looking good. We've got to import people."

Such talk didn't surprise Mike Seney, senior vice president of operations for The State Chamber.

"Tort reform lawsuits are not a threat to anybody until they're filed," he said. "If I'm a plant manager, I'm not worried about lawsuit reform. If I'm a company president in New York, I'm more worried about it."

That struck a common cord among plant operators, although it didn't change their opinions.

While he played no part in the plant negotiations, Gatorade Plant Manager Chris Weber speculated that officials with parent Pepsico certainly considered tort reform issues before choosing Oklahoma. But he doubted such concern played a major role in the final decision.

"That's not something we target," he said.

Oklahoma State University economist Ron Moomaw said he could understand that, with many sectors riding strong economic winds over the last three years. But the professor and head of the OSU Spears School of Business Department of Economics and Legal Studies also agreed with Seney that tort issues would not be ignored by upper management.

With the national economy showing signs of a possible recession - although OSU economist Mark Snead even questions that - Moomaw said the issue may therefore reside on the sustainability of Oklahoma's economic cushion. …

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