Q: What do you feel is your mission right now? What is the hardest job you have as governor of Oklahoma?
A: Well, probably the most amorphous, the toughest thing to get your arms around is economic growth.
It's so big and it's so broad-based. How do you get an entire state to begin targeting on food processing and aircraft maintenance and manufacturing and telecommunications?
How do you organize not only state government but private industry in a way that encourages those kind of investments?
That's perhaps the most difficult. That's perhaps the most complicated. Perhaps the most difficult is convincing a public that receives a steady ratio of negative reminders that governments can't do anything, governments are overburdened bureaucracies, that in fact they can do things.
And that we have every reason to be spirited about what we have accomplished, because we've got an economic turnaround under way. We've got massive investments going on in education, we have a state government that is not just balancing a budget but making a lot of progress at the same time.
And so to begin, we've got a national attitude problem. Obviously, this nation was ready to vote for a man who promised change but who wouldn't even tell them what it was - the Ross Perot phenomenon - demonstrating the level of frustration in this country.
So I think that's the biggest challenge for any public official, is to perform, not to say it, but to perform in a way that provides concrete evidence to the public that real things and good things can happen out of this industry that we call government.
Q: During your trade mission to New York in September, what did you hope to accomplish on this trip, and when might the state see some of its fruits?
A: Well, you always would love to carry back great new announcements and big new jobs and large amounts of investment, but that rarely happens.
Our purpose here [was] really to raise what we call the "top of the mind visibility" of Oklahoma.
People don't have an image of Oklahoma. It's a small state in the middle of the country. I think when they begin to understand just how progressive and how targeted we are and how well we're doing, it changes the attitudes in terms of their willingness to invest.
So these kind of things are akin to planting seeds much more than they are harvest. So we would expect over the next five to 10 years that if we do this with some regularity, that Oklahoma's image improves and we'll see more activity.
Q: Since Oklahoma voters in March approved State Question 640, which restricts lawmakers' taxing powers, how has it affected state government?
A: I think it's a working solution. It's different, and a lot of people are reassessing the Proposition 13 that was passed by California because of the calamity that has befallen California recently.
The difference is that California rushed in behind Prop. 13 and filled the void with state dollars that were left by the cutoff of local dollars.
We have not done that. We're not heavily invested in local, governments. They pay for themselves essentially, and their tax rates out there are very low compared to our internal burdens as well as compared to other states. So I don't see 640 as being something that is a time bomb waiting to go off.
Q: How might the passage of 640 affect the state's double-A bond rating and your efforts to get it upgraded to triple-A, the rating lost after the 1980s oil bust?
A: We had good meetings with Standard & Poor's [Corp.] and Moody's [Investors Service while in New York]. I think we certainly answered all their questions about budget controls.
Again, the key is, "Can we go into a $7 billion budget and cut budgets and reallocate it to higher priority projects?," and the answer to that is "yes."
"Do we have a reasonable tax structure to begin with?" And the answer to that is "yes."
We've got a broad-based tax that has income and personal and corporate and sales in about the right mix.
I'm not interested in raising the tax rates and neither is the public, and I think as we grow, our economy will have enough growth revenue to do what we need to do. So I think, again, since our economy looks like it's doing better, and on a relative basis maybe doing better than anyone else in the country, it is a strong argument, I think, to rating agencies to give us a hard look and consider rating these bonds higher.
Did hey give you any guidelines or make any suggestions to you on what you should do?
A: No, it was simply an opportunity for us in an informal way to answer questions and provide them with information.
Q: Is the time right for an upgrade?
A: I think so. I think we've got some bond activity coming up, whether it's on a small conversion bond issue or we may be back on turnpike bonds, lots of other activities. I think it's a good time for us to - particularly on the heels of demonstrated success over the last two years, the fact that the economy has turned around in Oklahoma - to ask for a reconsideration.
Q: You have proposed a $25 million to $50 million revenue bond plan to finance the conversion of much of the state's vehicle fleet from conventional to natural gas. How would this unique tax-exempt securities plan work?
A: We have more natural gas per capita than any other state in the nation. Texas, Louisiana have more on an absolute basis, but for the size of our state, we have a lot of it.
I don't particularly care to compete with coal interests because the most I can get for natural gas competing with coal is about $1.50 per [unit].
I'm much more interested in competing in the transportation sector.
We've got a domestically abundant and environmentally superior - and, unfortunately, economic - fuel at the current cost in the form of natural gas that comes out of the ground at [low] octane. It competes with refined gasoline.
So what we have done is be very aggressive in the incentives. We give tax credits for conversion of your automobile, for conversion of your filling station. We loan you interest-free dollars if you want to convert your school buses and county vehicles or what have you.
What I'm trying to do is expand that last program I mentioned, expand essentially the loan program, and we get a one-time conversion of a broad number of state vehicles, city vehicles, county and school district vehicles, so that we have several thousand out on the road instead of just a few hundred. I think in that way we begin to develop a critical mass.