On Wednesday, the Charles Koch Institute is hosting a panel discussion “Expanding Opportunity in Oklahoma: Earned Success and the Paths to Prosperity” In Oklahoma City. We asked five questions with Alison Acosta Fraser, Managing Director, Policy and Research, Charles Koch Institute about the event and her ties to the Sooner State.
1. Tell us about your Oklahoma roots?
I first came to Oklahoma City in 1995. My children were young and it was a wonderful place for them to grow up. I’ll admit I was a little challenged to blend in coming from the beaches of California, but I will never forget the thrill of seeing my first firefly or the beauty of Oklahoma’s big blue skies.
I worked in the Office of State Finance, putting together the budget for Governor Frank Keating and stayed through the first legislative session for Governor Brad Henry. I had many rewarding professional experiences and formed some close friendships. I had the honor to meet and work with many of Oklahoma’s leaders; I had the privilege of representing the state – well, at least the state’s finances – to the financial markets; and the fulfillment of working on the pressing challenges and opportunities and to see some solutions put into law.
I suppose I am eastwardly drawn, as we moved to Washington DC area in 2003, so I’ve been gone for some time now. But I maintain my Oklahoma roots through my daughter, who is in college in Oklahoma City.
2. What is the Charles Koch Institute, and why are you coming to OKC?
The Charles Koch Institute is a non-profit educational organization, focused on the importance of free societies and how they increase well-being.
The Institute is embarking on a new endeavor, the Well-Being Initiative, to advance understanding of the meaning, foundations, and drivers of human flourishing through dialogue, research, and education. This includes supporting and producing research on well-being, and sponsoring nationwide forums such as our upcoming event in Oklahoma City.
We thought this was an important place for an event on well-being because Oklahoma is really thriving in some ways, yet in others it is behind. I remember when I first came to Oklahoma, we were around 45th in per capita state income and lagging near the bottom in growth. But now, Oklahoma’s growth is flourishing — the state’s growth ranked 5th for per capita state income due in large part to the oil and gas boom. This has created tremendous opportunity, and the growth I’ve seen in the city when I come back to visit is really impressive. Yet the poverty rate remains persistently high and is still above the national average. Despite its impressive growth, Oklahoma still has some real challenges which prevent more people from advancing.
So our goal here for the Charles Koch Institute is to foster a conversation and find common ground over ideas that will help reduce barriers to opportunity and earned success.
3. The format of the event has perspectives from all walks of the political spectrum, is that purposeful?
Absolutely! In my experience, people appreciate the effort to look beyond our differences, which are important, but to go beyond that and seek out areas where we do agree in order to move forward. We’re trying to inspire change through informed discussion: bringing all sides of the debate together to exchange ideas and perspectives in a respectful manner.
Previous events, in Atlanta and in Austin, have shown us that people with a variety of viewpoints can find common ground on critical issues, which we hope will lead to solutions.
4. With your Oklahoma experience, what can be done to improve opportunity and prosperity in Oklahoma for all citizens?
Our goal for this event is to foster an open dialogue from across the spectrum. As for specific steps, I think there are a few areas ripe for discussion.
From my experience, it was very fulfilling to see a number of policy changes become law in my time here and in the years after I left. Bringing down the state’s top income tax rate was an important accomplishment, and succeeding administrations built on this to where the top rate has been cut by 25 percent and the estate tax eliminated. These were really important steps both for Oklahoma to be competitive, but also for maintaining and creating jobs.
While some of these policies have fostered wonderful opportunities for many people today, there are Oklahomans left behind. Though Oklahoma’s poverty rate has declined significantly over the past 60 years, at 17 percent it is still higher than the national average of 15 percent.
No surprise to your readers, Oklahoma has the fourth highest incarceration rate in the nation and locks away more women than any state. Consider a non-violent offender serving a multi-year prison sentence, with no way to support their family. Once leaving prison he or she will face tremendous barriers to finding a stable job and reintegrating into society. Oklahoma also has burdensome licensing requirements for a high number of occupations – preventing people from starting their own small businesses or undertaking a new profession.
And of course taking steps to build on past successes in improving the state’s business climate, without cronyism, would help to build opportunity for more people, particularly the least fortunate.
These are some of the issues the Charles Koch Institute is exploring in forums like this and we look forward to a great discussion.
5. What have been the action steps or “next steps” from previous events in terms of policy change?
We have been able to form some important new relationships, and these events have shown wide interest on some central issues. And we have been very encouraged with the substantive and robust discussion that each event has generated, particularly among groups that don’t see eye to eye on every issue. We believe our forums have been calling attention to critical issues that affect well-being and demonstrating that there is common ground and solutions to be found.