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Wind industry’s Capitol news conference interrupted by flap over room reservation

A news conference organized by a lobbyist for the wind industry set off a controversy at the Capitol on Tuesday over the use of space belonging to the House of Representatives.

A House sergeant-at-arms abruptly ended the news conference in the House lounge, saying he had been ordered to do so by the office of the Republican speaker of the House.

The incident was the latest flap in a political struggle that has developed over a proposal to raise additional revenue from wind power generation.

“The speaker’s office has directed me to stop the meeting. This was not reserved for you guys today, so we need to stop it now,” the sergeant-at-arms told wind officials.

Mark Yates, a lobbyist for The Wind Coalition, brought a quick close to the event, which had been going on for 35 minutes and appeared to be nearing an end. Yates said the room had been reserved for his organization’s use by state Rep. Scott Inman, D-Del City, a senior Democrat.

Wind Coalition officials requested the news conference to tout the importance of the wind industry to Oklahoma and voice their objections to proposed tax increases on the industry included in revenue measures being pushed by the governor, House leadership and a statewide coalition of business and civic leaders called Step Up Oklahoma.

Wind officials used the news conference to reiterate their displeasure with being left out of early Step Up Oklahoma negotiations and their objections to proposed revenue raising measures they said would adversely impact their industry and rural Oklahomans.

“There is no doubt that it appears that the proposals on the table today are punitive toward the wind industry,” Yates said, referring to proposals to put a $1 per megawatt tax on wind generation and a cap on tax incentives due wind companies on previously completed projects.

“We have companies that have been looking at Oklahoma that have decided to go invest elsewhere,” he said. “We’d be eliminating or capping them at such a low rate that it could literally jeopardize the financing on these projects.”

Consultant Wade Patterson, a retired Garfield County assessor, spoke and stressed how important ad valorem taxes generated by the wind industry have been to many Oklahoma school districts.

“$74 million has been paid for by the wind industry in property taxes,” Patterson said, referring to 2017 taxes paid by the wind industry that benefit schools, CareerTechs and other entities in 23 counties. “That is a great revenue stream locally.”

Chuck Coffey, a Murray County landowner, credited his ability to lease land for wind power generation with making it possible for him to keep his land in the family.

“Many of us ranchers, we’re land rich and cash poor,” Coffey said. “The income we get from the wind company with wind turbines allows us to transfer this land to the next generation and keep it intact.”

The wind industry pays out more than $36 million a year in Oklahoma land lease payments, officials said.

While much of the news conference focused on policy disagreements and statistics, it was the way the event ended that sparked the most interest.

Jason Sutton, press secretary for House Speaker Charles McCall, issued a statement afterward that said the “Speaker’s office did not ask the House sergeants to remove anyone from the House Lounge.”

“The issue was brought up by a member of the House, and a House administrator asked the House sergeants to enforce the House policy,” Sutton stated. “The long-standing policy of the House of Representatives regarding use of the House Lounge is that only lawmakers may reserve the room and must be present during the use.”

Sutton said the lounge was reserved through Democratic state Rep. Steve Kouplen’s office during the time in question for a “Democrat Caucus,” which is noted on the room’s reservation calendar.

“The room was clearly being used instead for a news conference by individuals from private industry, and no Democratic House members were present as sponsors,” Sutton said. “Individuals, businesses or associations from outside the Capitol may not use the House Lounge absent a sponsoring lawmaker. It is unclear who, if anyone, authorized a third-party group to use the House Lounge.”

State Rep. Inman issued his own statement later, acknowledging his role in helping wind industry representatives reserve the room.

“The Wind Coalition contacted me yesterday after they were unable to reserve a space at the Capitol to hold a news conference,” Inman said. “I agreed to help them reserve a room through my office at the Capitol, reserving the House Lounge for their news conference. The Oklahoma state Capitol is the people’s house, welcome to all citizens interested in reflecting on Oklahoma’s history, meeting their elected officials and sharing their ideas and solutions to our state’s most pressing problems.”

Inman said his reservation request was granted and he was there to welcome members of the wind coalition as they arrived.

“Having seen numerous coalition and industry-led press conferences in my 11 years in the House of Representatives, I do not understand why the coalition’s news conference was disrupted this morning,” Inman said. “I apologize to the sergeants who were asked to intervene. I hope future groups interested in sharing their ideas at the state Capitol are more warmly received.”