By Scott Meacham
Copyright © 2018, The Oklahoma Publishing Co.
The fight against cancer in Oklahoma took a giant leap forward last week with the announcement that the Stephenson Cancer Center has become a National Cancer Institute Designated Cancer Center. NCI-designated Cancer Centers represent only the top 2 percent of Cancer Centers nationwide.
I have been privileged to serve on the Leadership Council for the Stephenson Center. As I listened to the announcement speeches, I couldn’t help but think about the heavy lifting that occurred at the state Capitol in 2004 that made the center possible.
I am not sure where the idea of building a cancer center began, but in 2001, the Legislature adopted HB 2660, calling for the establishment of the center. Back then, the way to get “new things” accomplished was to adopt an unfunded statute calling for the new thing. Then the interested parties would work to find funding in later legislative sessions.
When I arrived at the Capitol in 2003, the Cancer Center legislation remained yet another unfunded project. Dr. Joseph Ferretti, then Provost of the OU Health Sciences Campus, and Dr. Dewayne Andrews, Dean of the OU College of Medicine, introduced me to the center in 2004, underscoring the need for state funding.
In 2004, funds were tough to find for new projects. The prior fiscal year had a revenue shortfall forcing cuts to key state services. With provider access problems in the Medicaid program, Oklahoma desperately needed to increase provider rates. The state’s trauma system was about to collapse from lack of funding. Additionally, policymakers wanted to provide assistance so that the working poor could afford to purchase health insurance. The Cancer Center was just one of many competing needs.
We came up with the idea of a 55-cent per-pack tax increase on cigarettes. To help gain Republican votes, we packaged in the Oklahoma capital gains exemption that has received so much press lately. The tobacco tax was projected to raise a net $76 million, with $7 million per year provided to the Cancer Center for bond payments on the new facility.
Gov. Brad Henry proposed the tobacco tax and the use of funds in his 2004 State of the State address. Then began the hard work to convince the Legislature to submit the package to the voters for approval. Republicans wanted more tax cuts, and the big tobacco lobby came out in force to work on Democrats.
Under Cal Hobson’s leadership, the proposal passed the Senate relatively easily; the House was a different story.
House Speaker, Larry Adair, and his lieutenant, Speaker Pro Tempore Danny Hilliard, did yeoman’s work in mustering votes, but we were still a few votes short of the requisite majority to advance the bill.
On the day of the vote, Governor Henry set up camp in the Speaker’s office and called in individual members until he got the majority needed to advance the bill. Republican Ray Vaughn crossed party lines and voted to advance the measure. Oklahoma voters subsequently approved SQ 713.
The Stephenson Cancer Center became the NCI-designated facility it is today because of the vision and determination of Robert Mannel, the only director the center has ever had; the transformative $12 million gift made by Charlie and Peggy Stephenson; and the more than $20 million invested in research by The Oklahoma Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust (TSET).
None of this would have happened if courageous members of the 2004 Oklahoma Legislature had not allowed Oklahoma’s voters to decide to increase tobacco taxes in 2004.
Scott Meacham is president and CEO of i2E Inc., a nonprofit corporation that mentors many of the state’s technology-based startup companies. i2E receives state support from the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology.