POSTED ON NOVEMBER 24, 2010:
Getting A Real Job
After a six-year term as speaker of the state house, Benge begins new role in city government
If It Is Necessary. “My title also has that ‘but not limited to’ addendum,” Benge said last week on the afternoon of his first day on the job, smiling. “(The mayor) may have me cleaning the bathrooms before it’s all said and done.”
From Chris Benge's perspective, he's going from a job where he had 34,000 bosses -- the residents of state House District 68 -- to a new position with just one -- Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr.
As the newest member of the mayor's management team, Benge -- the speaker of the state House of Representatives from 2008 until last week, when he completed the final of his six terms in office before being forced to leave because of term limits -- now serves as director of intergovernmental and enterprise development for the city of Tulsa.
Benge acknowledges his new title is a bit of a mouthful, but he says it boils down to his serving as the liaison between the mayor's office and various other governmental entities, including the federal, state and county governments, and the Indian Nations Council of Governments. Benge also will work on economic development initiatives, specifically development of the Arkansas River corridor; promote the use of compressed natural gas for transportation purposes; assist the mayor's Office of Sustainability with the implementation of energy-saving initiatives; serve as the mayor's liaison with veterans groups; assume responsibility for the city's Sister Cities program; recruit new tenants for One Technology Center, the building that houses City Hall; and assist with the implementation strategies of the KPMG recommendations.
"My title also has that 'but not limited to' addendum," Benge said last week on the afternoon of his first day on the job, smiling. "(The mayor) may have me cleaning the bathrooms before it's all said and done."
The biggest adjustment Benge will have to make, he said, is going from one of the most powerful positions in state government as speaker of the House to operating at a non-executive level as a member of Bartlett's management team. Even so, he's not anticipating it will take him long to adapt to that new dynamic.
"I've taken orders most of my working life, and I'm sure I can adjust to doing that again," he said.
The Tulsa native also believes he's a good fit for a municipal government position.
"My experience in government has allowed me to have the skills to help promote policy at the city level," he said. "Being able to work with different people is key to this position. I have a broad goal of trying to grow Tulsa's economy, and most of my legislative career, I spent working on issues to grow Oklahoma's economy."
During his time at the Capitol, Benge said he was instrumental in helping secure the passage of such economic development initiatives as increased transportation funding, creation of the Oklahoma NanoTechnology Initiative, additions to the state's Quality Jobs incentives program, lawsuit reform and workers compensation reform.
"With that kind of experience and work, it's a good fit for me to take that passion and bring it to the city of Tulsa," he said.
Benge said he was approached about coming to work for Bartlett last summer, several weeks after the completion of the legislative session, and indicated it wasn't something he had been considering.
"I did not have the city of Tulsa on my radar screen as an option," he said. "But the more we talked, the more it seemed to make sense and do something on behalf of the community I'm a part of."
The outgoing speaker said he had several other options he had been considering, though he declined to discuss those. He even gave some thought to getting out of government work completely, he said, before realizing that was where his strengths were.
"I came around to looking at what I had worked on for the last 12 years," he said. "It just didn't seem right to walk away from that. It didn't seem right career wise, and I thought I had something to bring to the table for city government."
Ultimately, Benge said, he realized he still enjoyed helping shape public policy, especially in the area of economic development. He believes the current economic realities have ushered in a new era, particularly in regard to how the private lives of citizens have been impacted and the delivery of government services.
"It's important to help shape our government to reflect that new climate," he said. "What I mean by that is, you have an economy more interconnected globally than ever and that's becoming more competitive. It's requiring that we all are flexible -- not only in the private sector, but it requires the government to be more flexible. We all need to look at what government ought to be doing and the kind of resources we're going to have to achieve those goals."
Having worked at the Capitol for the past 12 years, Benge said he detected a prevailing sense among many Tulsans that the city was not treated equitably in the legislative appropriations process, particularly in comparison to Oklahoma City.
"The response I always saw from people up here was always complaints about not being treated fairly," he said. "I can tell you that message did not resonate (among other lawmakers). We needed to find a way to interact with the decision makers, not just at the state but the folks in Oklahoma City, too."
Things began to change, he said, when Tulsa started to work with other municipalities in the area to develop a more unified voice in its communication with those at the Capitol, he said.
"Tulsa needs to not always have a chip on its shoulder and talk about being left out," he said. "I can assure you, most people (across the state) feel like they've been left out."
As an example, Benge recalled a bond issue state lawmakers passed two years ago that included funds for a new Native American cultural center in Oklahoma City, endowed chairs at state universities, conservation centers across the state and low-water dams on the Arkansas River in the Tulsa area. On the surface, he said, it seemed there was a little something for everyone.
"Then we heard from all the other medium-size communities in the state saying, 'We were left out,' " he said. "I think a different approach (by Tulsa) has been helpful, and I would certainly be in favor of us trying to interact with other communities and the state."
Benge said he's hurriedly trying to bring himself up to speed on the city's efforts to identify opportunities for more widespread use of CNG in regard to transportation, an issue he championed from a statewide level while he was speaker of the House. Currently, only 17 city vehicles operate on CNG out of a fleet of approximately 2,600 -- a number that includes all Tulsa Police Department vehicles. And while three more CNG-powered vehicles currently are on order, Benge acknowledged those numbers leave plenty of room for improvement.
He was also expecting to be briefed last week on river development efforts, a long-term project that is awaiting both the completion of an environmental impact study and the allocation of funding from the state and federal governments.
"It's hard to lay out a time table, but I would guess we're two or three years off" from substantial movement on that project, he said.
Benge also could find himself working with many of his former associates at the Capitol on one more issue that is a priority with the mayor. City officials have filed suit against the state, seeking the right to hire an independent contractor to collect their sales tax receipts from private businesses -- something the city was prohibited from doing by a state law passed during the most recent legislative session.
That task currently is the job of the state Tax Commission, though city officials believe a private contractor could do a better job and have even signed an agreement with an Alabama-based firm to assume that responsibility. That agreement remains in limbo, pending the outcome of the city's litigation against the state.
Terry Simonson, the mayor's chief of staff, said earlier this month that if the city's lawsuit against the state is not successful, Tulsa will lobby the Legislature hard to change the state law.
"We hope the judge says the law is unconstitutional, as it pertains to our situation," Simonson said.
Regardless of how the litigation is resolved, Benge said, the Tax Commission has ramped up its efforts to collect delinquent taxes from businesses.
"Some of our legislative decisions tried to help in that regard," he said, noting that lawmakers approved funds for computer upgrades at the Tax Commission and also passed a law requiring sellers in an online transaction involving an Oklahoma buyer to inform the consumer he or she was responsible for paying a use tax.
"There have been some other things that have been done, too," he said. "The state is trying to maximize its collection capability."
While he said he's looking forward to the challenges of his new job, Benge acknowledged he'll miss being involved in the decision making at the highest levels of state government -- as well as the salesmanship that went along with that authority.
"I always enjoyed trying to lay out a vision," he said. "That's what I enjoyed most -- laying out a platform and talking to people and trying to get them to buy into that vision. That was very enjoyable."
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