Last week, the Oklahoman published an article discussing Governor Stitt’s increased use of a business incentive called the Quick Action Closing Fund. A recent 1889 blog addressed some of the fiscal pitfalls of the program (and other corporate welfare schemes like it), such as their redistributive nature and their tendency to take from the general public to subsidize the rich. In this piece, I would like to focus on another worrisome aspect of the program – its utter lack of transparency. There simply isn’t any good information available concerning the Fund’s recent usage. Any available information is either outdated, inaccurate, or incomplete.
In March of 2020, the Department of Commerce published a detailed report on the Quick Action Closing Fund that (among other things) listed payments made from the fund since its inception in 2011. The title of the report, Governor’s Quick Action Closing Fund Annual Report 2019, is ironic considering that (to my knowledge) it is the only such report. The year 2022 is now only a few weeks away and there still hasn’t been an update. Anyone desiring current information on the Fund will need to look elsewhere. A helpful tip to the Department of Commerce: you probably shouldn’t call something an annual report if you don’t intend to publish it annually.
We know for certain the Fund has been used since the 2019 “annual” report. Last year, Governor Stitt and the Department of Commerce used $5 million from the Quick Action Closing Fund to set up the Manufacturing Reboot Program. The program was designed to help businesses (especially manufacturers) develop and expand while dealing with the hardship created by the pandemic. Information regarding which businesses received an award and in what amount is relatively easy to find, if you know the name of the program. However, if you were simply searching for information on the Quick Action Closing Fund, you would likely never come across this information. Siloing information this way makes it easy for insiders to talk circles around those who question a program, but it does not increase voters’ knowledge of how their taxes are being spent. That isn’t transparency; it’s fuzzy accounting.
Fortunately, the state of Oklahoma maintains a site called data.ok.gov to “[provide] Oklahomans with deep access to data and statistics about the activities of Oklahoma’s government.” A quick search for the Quick action Closing Fund turns up one dataset. Unfortunately, this is a bit of a dead end as well. According to the site, the dataset was last updated in October of 2019. To make matters worse, the dataset lists only four transactions with two companies (Macy’s and General Electric) that occurred between 2014 and 2016. Based on the information provided in the “annual” report, this dataset is clearly incorrect.
No matter, there are other ways to find out how money is being spent in our state. Governor Stitt claimed his administration is dedicated to making Oklahoma more transparent, stating that he would “work with the legislature in order to deliver needed oversight measures; …put Oklahoma’s checkbook online; …audit every state agency; and…deliver Oklahomans the transparency that they deserve.” The Closing Fund is maintained by the Department of Commerce, so a quick glance at their expenditures on Governor Stitt’s transparency site should show any recent transactions involving the Fund. Except, it doesn’t. The “agency expense” page for the Department of Commerce simply shows a list of expense amounts all labeled “Department of Commerce.”
Is there any way to get reliable information about a government program in this state? One could try a phone call or email to the Department of Commerce, but that would most likely result in the default agency response when someone casually asks for information: put in an open records request. How many Oklahoma taxpayers would be willing to hunt for this information, much less file a formal request? Even an open records request may prove insufficient, since many corporate welfare deals are negotiated under Non-Disclosure Agreements.
Bottom-line: “Open Government” and “Transparency” are hollow slogans if they are not followed by meaningful reform and the actual act of posting accurate and timely information. Fancy websites with customizable graphs and charts are fun, but they are useless when they don’t provide you with the information you need. When filled with outdated, inaccurate, or incomplete information, they become tools of government deception and abuse.
Tyler Williamson is a Research Associate at 1889 Institute and can be reached at [email protected].
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.