Latin America Offers State Trade Partner Possibilities
Marie Price The Journal Record, THE JOURNAL RECORD
Oklahoma and many Latin American countries have one thing in common -- having to diversify their oil-dependent economies in order to survive.
At one time, Rep. Bill Nations, D-Norman, told Latin American representatives attending a meeting of the Joint Special International Development Committee Monday, tax revenues from the energy industry made up about one-third of Oklahoma's state budget. Since the oil bust of the early 1980s, its share has dropped to about 10 percent.
"The development of international trade is a high priority for the state of Oklahoma, maybe its top priority," the lawmaker said.
Nations, who chaired the meeting with Sen. Bernest Cain, D- Oklahoma City, was part of an Oklahoma international trade delegation that visited Washington, D.C., last summer.
"We got a new perspective on how important Latin America is to Oklahoma as a trade partner," Nations said.
Attending Monday's meeting were government and business representatives from Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Ecuador. The group will also visit Washington, D.C., California and Puerto Rico.
Elba Julieta Garcia, with the Ministry of Finance in Venezuela, asked how diversity of Oklahoma's economy was accomplished.
Nations said that it was actually a matter of necessity brought about by the bottoming-out of the oil industry in the early 1980s.
"There has been more diversification of the Oklahoma economy in the last decade than in all of state history," he said. "There's nothing like necessity as a motivator."
To accelerate the transition, Nations said, the Legislature enacted changes in the state's tax structure and incentives such as the Quality Jobs Act to attract manufacturing and other types of industry to Oklahoma.
Cain asked Garcia what steps Venezuela has taken toward diversification.
She replied that the nation is currently working on a foreign investment law to encourage a more broadly based economy.
Nations said that in recent years Oklahoma's diversification emphasis has been shifting to technology and ensuring an educated work force.
Another trade representative asked how the move away from heavy reliance on oil and agriculture was achieved without displacing those who work in those areas.
Rep. M.C. Leist, D-Morris, said that some displacement cannot be avoided.
"That's just a fact of life," he said.
Leist said that Oklahoma's nationally known vocational-technical education system is a valuable tool in retraining those affected by changes in the state's economic structure. At the same time, he said, the state is taking the initial steps in boosting the value- added concept in agriculture rather than merely exporting its raw materials.
Rep. Raymond G. McCarter, D-Marlow, said that when the oil industry went bust, much of Oklahoma's remaining economy was in the agriculture sector, and transition to a more diverse economy structure was difficult.
"We had a tough time," he said.
McCarter said that many of those who had earned their living in the energy sector had to retrain "or go to the unemployment office." He agreed that the state's strong vo-tech system was the salvation of many of those needing to learn new ways of making a living.
"We've done quite well, although some thought we wouldn't," he said. "We're making giant strides today."
Nations said that the extent of the oil industry's problems ultimately reached into most Oklahoma households.
"It was not hard to convince people of the need to change," he said.
Horacio Rose, with the Agriculture and Forestry Ministry of Nicaragua, asked what is Oklahoma's general view of the Free Market Area of the Americas concept.
"I think that Oklahoma is very interested in this prospect," said Nations. "We've come to see Latin America as the best focus for the development of international trade in Oklahoma. …