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State laws on abortion, transgender issues have companies balking on coming to Oklahoma, development official says

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Protesters rallied in front of the Tulsa County Courthouse last month in response to the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, allowing states, including Oklahoma, to make abortions illegal. Development officials say businesses are thinking twice about relocating or expanding in the state because of abortion and transgender legislation that has come out of the state Capitol.

Some businesses are starting to think twice about relocating to Oklahoma — or expanding existing operations within the state — because of anti-abortion and anti-transgender legislation that has come out of the state Capitol, a Tulsa Regional Chamber official said Wednesday.

“I would say right now, top of mind for a lot of companies — and it’s not just businesses saying this; it’s also site consultants that work with these businesses on their next phase or expansion — is a lot of our social issues. And it’s not just our state; it’s Texas, right; it’s others, Florida,” Arthur Jackson, senior vice president of economic development for the chamber, said in response to a question from a Tulsa City councilor.

“When we come out with things like abortion bills or transgender laws, … we’re starting to see an impact on whether or not we can meet with companies and whether or not they want to reconsider if we have an active project to relocate here, as well. So it has been impacting us.”

During a routine presentation to city councilors, Jackson said the chamber continues to see strong interest from companies looking to do business in northeastern Oklahoma. But when asked what he was hearing from businesses that choose not to locate here, he pointed to social issues.

The state’s response to hot-button issues like abortion and transgender rights aren’t just making it more difficult to attract out-of-state businesses, Jackson said, but local ones are feeling the repercussions, as well.

He stressed that he was relating what he has been hearing from businesses, not expressing his personal opinion.

“We are hearing from some of our local employers that are here, that I will just say are nowhere near the liberal side. … But they are already being impacted by whether or not people are able to move here or relocate here from a talent perspective,” he said. “We have had that mentioned.”

Oklahoma has the most restrictive abortion laws in the country. Legislation signed by Gov. Kevin Stitt in May effectively ended the availability of the procedure at any stage of pregnancy. The only exceptions in the law are to save the life of a pregnant woman or if the pregnancy is the result of a rape or incest that has been reported to law enforcement.

Lawmakers also have passed several bills related to transgender people in the past two years. A law dubbed the Save Women’s Sports Act prohibits those assigned male at birth from participating in female sports as transgender athletes.

Another bill requires students to use the school restrooms and changing rooms that correspond with the gender listed on their birth certificate.

Through executive order from Stitt, Oklahoma prohibits transgender people who were born in the state from changing the gender marker on their birth certificates. And another bill signed into law by Stitt bans nonbinary gender markers on birth certificates for people who identify as neither male nor female.

Jackson said that in its role as an advocate for businesses, the chamber works to showcase the region’s positives through social media campaigns and other initiatives.

“I say people move to communities, not states,” he said.

Elizabeth Osburn, senior vice president of government affairs for the chamber, said the organization is about serving the needs of its diverse membership but that that work does not include being on the front lines of battles over social issues.

“So you are never going to see us trying to lead a charge or argue one way or another on a social issue,” Osburn said. “But what we will do is take data to lawmakers, and so to the extent that we are seeing data trends or we are hearing things, absolutely we pass them along to build a case.”

In an unrelated press conference and accompanying press release Thursday, House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman, also brought up the possibility that Panasonic ruled out Oklahoma in favor of Kansas because of the differences in the states’ politics on social issues.

“You have to wonder if our lack of investment in things like education, teachers, students, does that play a role?” Virgin said in the press release. “Does extreme anti-choice and anti-LGBTQ legislation play a role? Do these laws create a climate where businesses can’t move to Oklahoma regardless of tax incentives?

“Democrats say ‘yes’ those things affect our business climate. To attract companies to locate in Oklahoma, we must stop attacking the people we want to relocate here — their employees and their families. You can’t get businesses to come here with a culture of bigotry and hate.”

Tulsa’s city government, by and large, has charted a much more progressive path when it comes to navigating controversial social issues, but Oklahoma municipalities have only so much say over what happens at the state Capitol.

Kian Kamas, executive director of Partner Tulsa, the city’s economic development arm, said Thursday that the city’s future economic success lies in being a welcoming city.

“Over the past several years, we have been focused on building a vibrant and inclusive city that grows economic opportunity for all Tulsa residents,” Kamas said. “Programs like RetrainTulsa, investments such as the Greenwood Entrepreneurship Incubator at Morton, efforts to increase our tools to build more affordable housing — while different on the face, these initiatives all contribute to building a Tulsa that welcomes and supports all residents.”

Krystal Reyes, the city’s chief resilience officer, leads the Mayor’s Office of Resilience and Equity.

“Throughout the past few years, we have made Tulsa more welcoming through our New Tulsans Initiative,” she said. “We are now hosting monthly naturalization ceremonies that welcome many immigrants to our city.”

Reyes said her office established the Mayor’s Pay Equity Pledge to ensure equal pay for equal work for women in the workplace.

“We are also increasing civic engagement in a way Tulsa has never seen before through partnerships with communities that have not been engaged before,” Reyes said.

The city has also seen its LGBTQ+ inclusion and immigrant and refugee inclusion scores improve in recent years, based on independent metrics used by the city, Reyes said.

“So as Tulsa grows its business landscape, we are embedding resilience and equity into all facets of decision-making — a strategy that I think would be extremely appealing to those who want to do business here,” Reyes said.

Video: Governor, AG celebrate Roe v. Wade being overturned

"The womb is now, in Oklahoma, the safest place for a child to be," Attorney General John O'Connor said.

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