story by Ryan Saylor
U.S. Rep. James Lankford, R-Edmond, brought his campaign for U.S. Senate to Poteau Monday (Aug. 25). The Oklahoma City-area congressman, who is running to replace retiring Muskogee Republican Tom Coburn in the Senate in January, said he was in eastern Oklahoma on a listening tour.
"(It is to) spend time just to listen to people and hear some of the stories of what's happening, what people are sensing as issues with the federal government right now because that's a really big issue to me. It's tough to represent people (who you have not met) because you have to hear the stories. So for me, it's an opportunity to hear the stories and know exactly what's happening.”
Poteau, the county seat of LeFlore County, has the third worst unemployment rate in all of Oklahoma at 6.9% as of June 2014, the most recent month data was available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. It has consistently ranked among the top five counties statewide for unemployment, along with neighboring Sequoyah County which had an unemployment rate of 6.6% in June. Overall, the state unemployment rate is 4.5%.
According to Lankford, bringing jobs back to eastern Oklahoma is not going to be simple or quick.
"(The) first question is why? Why are they leaving the area and you start looking at the triggers. Businesses typically stay where they're thriving, whether it's manufacturing that's happening, where they have great workers and where the regulations are low and the tax rates are low," he said. "And so if there are issues with regulations with the Environmental Protection Agency or regulations that are coming down that are discouraging work or discouraging the start of new businesses, you have to start with that.”
Lankford explained that bringing jobs back to the area was going to require a shift of not only which companies are going to locate in eastern Oklahoma but also the skill sets needed to fill those positions.
"I would tell you there are no quick fixes to some of these areas because there are going to be educational issues that are going to be resolved. There's going to be job training programs that are already there that are already doing a really good job in the area.”
As for short-term solutions, the congressman said there really is not that can be done beyond re-educating and re-training those who are out of work or looking to change careers.
"A government make-ready job may be quick and immediate, but it's not long term and it's not sustainable. So as far as bringing business to the area, it's becomes a prime issue. There is hardly a focus on what programs are already available, as I mentioned already job training. What is out there that can expedite the process to clear some of the issues?”
He continued: "But once jobs leave an area, there's great difficulty to be able to bring them back. So it takes some time to be able to do that. Otherwise, you are literally creating make-work jobs that don't really encourage people because people know exactly what they are. So how can you actually make that transition back in a rapid way? There's no quick fix. That's it. You have to be able to solve the systemic problems and then be able to help turn this around.”
If elected in November to serve out the remainder of Coburn's term, Lankford will also be faced with the challenges along the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System, which extends from the Port of Catoosa, Okla., near Tulsa to the Mississippi River.
Funding has remained a challenge for the system, as maintenance has been pushed back due to funding issues and the risk of increased downtown due to preventable maintenance has increased. Lankford said he would work to bring some local control to communities along the navigation system.
"Several of the things that we fought with with the Corps of Engineers is how can the local governments be involved in the process? … When the Port of Catoosa wants there to be maintenance in the area, they shouldn't have to run through multiple hoops with the Corps of Engineers to allocate funding that they have available to be able to do some of that maintenance. According to Corps specifications, they should be able to do that, as well, so they participate together.”
According to Lankford, a problem happening with increasing frequency is money that is set aside for river and harbor maintenance being used for other purposes.
"The money that's been set aside to do river and harbor maintenance needs to be spent and used. For the last several years, some of that money has been moved to other areas that are not part of the river maintenance, not part of the lock and dam maintenance. That fund can't be used in other areas, it needs to be used for that. … Basically, that tax money that is set aside for that should be used for that, as well.”
Lankford will find out who his Democratic challenger is following Tuesday's (Aug. 26) primary runoff election. Connie Johnson, a Democratic state senator from Oklahoma City, is facing Jim Rogers of Midwest City in the runoff.