Oklahoma truly is a wonderful state, which I have thoroughly enjoyed throughout my 23 years as the president and chief executive officer of the State Chamber of Oklahoma. We have seen a lot of changes since 1986 — when Oklahoma was going through one of its toughest economic challenges. The unemployment rate in August of that year in Oklahoma was almost 9.5 percent.
With the help of a tremendous board of directors and a very courageous business membership, we began diversifying our economy. Rather than only depending on our two trusted cornerstones of energy and agriculture, we refocused our efforts to attract manufacturing to the state and grow that which was already here.
The passage of the best incentive program in the country for attracting new jobs brought us major attention. The Quality Jobs Act is still used as a model for other states that wish to attract new jobs or assist existing companies expand their operations.
Recognizing that an educated and skilled workforce is critical to the future success of any economy, the State Chamber became the second state chamber to hire a vice president of education and championed increased funding focused at improving our education system.
We also realized that Oklahoma’s vocational tech school system was the best in the world and worked with our manufacturers to strengthen partnerships to ensure the right skill sets were being forged in the classroom.
Ever since the early 1960s, business leaders have been advocating for Oklahoma to become a “right-to-work” state. We were the only state in the heartland of the country that didn’t allow workers the right to choose whether they wanted to belong to a union. That battle took us all the way to 2001, when Oklahoma became the only state to pass right-to-work by popular vote two weeks after 9/11, when we had to bring Oklahoma business leaders home on buses, vans, rent-a-cars and all methods of transportation from our nation’s capitol.
I’ll not soon forget the Oklahoma City bombing on April 19, 1995, or the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when Sen. Don Nickles was about to speak to 168 Oklahomans on the ninth floor of the U.S. Senate Hart Building in Washington when the Pentagon went up in a fireball before our very eyes.
Along the way, the State Chamber has been the leading advocate for business at the state capitol and is the only organization in Oklahoma representing all sizes and types of businesses. We have worked to revamp Oklahoma’s tax system, its workers’ compensation system, its tort system, its technology system, its health care system, its infrastructure system and its legislative system.
As a result of our efforts, we have been recognized as being among the best state chambers in the country. We were the first to be accredited by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have received awards almost annually for our marketing and lobbying effort and, just this year, have been named recipients of awards by both the American Tort Reform Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for Legal Reform for our efforts on civil justice reform.
More important than our awards is the resulting success of Oklahoma’s economy and the jobs created for our citizens. Nearly 23,000 new businesses have started up this year in Oklahoma, and our economy is now diversified. Our health care delivery system is sound, and we are working diligently to keep it that way.
The reasons for our success are many, but it’s because we have Oklahomans working together with a common vision and a unified mission: to make Oklahoma the state of choice for business.
With membership of more than 1,400 companies, 80 trade associations and 100 local chambers of commerce, our reach and influence is indeed tremendous, even beyond the borders of Oklahoma. Our board, staff, officers, oversight, legislative advocacy, member coordination and community outreach over the past two decades has resulted in the State Chamber of Oklahoma becoming the successful business advocate we are today.
Richard P. Rush retires as CCE president and CEO of the State Chamber of Oklahoma on March 31.