OKLAHOMA CITY -- A new plan to rebrand the state's image and redesign its license plate is raising eyebrows and being panned by some who say Oklahoma has bigger priorities to fund right now.
"Sir, Oklahoma can't manage funding for education, infrastructure, imprisonment, or police services. What is there to brand?" one Oklahoman wrote in an online note to Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell. "New plates isn't the answer. New means of spending money we don't have isn't the answer."
Despite critics, Pinnell said Wednesday that officials will push forward with the rebranding initiative known as Project Blue Sky. Right now, volunteers fuel the initiative and it's not costing any taxpayer dollars, he said.
"I jokingly say branding and not rebranding because I don't know what our current brand is," said Pinnell, who also serves as the state's secretary of tourism and branding.
In less than two weeks, more than 5,600 Oklahomans have completed an online survey designed to help the state focus its branding efforts. Users are asked what they most associate with the state and their likes and dislikes, he said. Pinnell hopes at least 15,000 people will complete it before he holds a branding summit in mid-August.
"We have got to define who we are as a state so that 49 other states don't do it for us," he said. "This branding effort, the goal of it is certainly to help us in our recruitment efforts both from a business perspective and a tourist perspective."
That effort will likely include a new state logo, changes to the state's website, new "Welcome to Oklahoma" signage and a new license plate. The new license plate probably wouldn't be unveiled until 2020 or 2021.
Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt said in an email that he asked Pinnell to lead the efforts because it's time to cast a strong vision for how the state defines itself to the nation and world.
"Pinnell has charged full steam ahead and developed an exceptional project to pull together creatives from all over the state to launch a bold brand for Oklahoma," he said in an email. "The goal is to breathe new life into tourism, job recruitment, business investors and more while also working to bolster pride in how great a state we truly are and will continue to be."
The state last tried to rebrand itself in 2016 when Republican Gov. Mary Fallin unveiled the "Explore Oklahoma" license plate that features the state bird, the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher.
The blue-and-white design features a portrait of the state bird gliding over a lake. Behind the bird are outlines of mesas that dot the western part of the state, along with the craggy mountain peaks that tourism officials say fill eastern Oklahoma.
"Our license plates are fine," another man wrote on Pinnell's Facebook page. "Don't waste my money. Please."
Fallin's plate cost Oklahomans an extra $5 a vehicle when they had to renew their auto registrations in 2017.
"There are a lot of things we need to be focusing on, (but) that being said, the license plate we currently have is absolutely hideous, but it's paid for," said former state Rep. Eric Proctor, D-Tulsa.
He said he'll withhold judgment about the license plate redesign until he hears whether leaders will charge vehicles owners another fee to pay for the plate. (Pinnell said that hasn't been determined yet.)
"If they're going to charge people again for the license plate, to me all that is nickel-and-diming people," he said. "It's a way they can make quick money and avoid taxing oil and gas companies more or avoid restoring income tax rates on higher earners."
Proctor said his priorities would be different, but doesn't think the rebranding effort is necessarily a bad thing.
"We can't do any worse than the last (license plate)," he said.
Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.