February 17, 2016
Using a puppet and a catchy jingle to reunite a million Oklahomans with their money seemed like a bird-brained idea, admits state Treasurer Ken Miller.
“I was like, ‘There’s no way we’re doing a puppet,’” he said.
But days after the successful premier of the “Scissortail Treasure Catcher,” Miller is chirping a different tune.
His office’s new mascot, Sirius Lee Scissortail, resembles the state’s official bird, the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, with its white head and breast, and brownish wings.
Rather than flittering around, however, Sirius Lee Scissortail works as a celebrity.
He spends his days on the local airwaves and cable television networks, encouraging Oklahomans to fluff their “nest-eggs” by checking to see if the state holds any of their money in its unclaimed property fund. (One need only visit the website oktreasure.com to find out.)
Miller and his staff are betting about $600,000 worth of unclaimed funds that Scissortail’s marketing pays off and reunites people with their cash. That’s the cost of making and placing the 30-second commercial.
Miller defends the expense, even given the state’s $1.3 billion budget deficit. He points out that the Legislature last year routinely borrows from the fund — about $60 million last year. Also, it’s his job to ensure the money is returned to its rightful owners.
“We felt using 1 percent of that money to protect the integrity of the program, and get more money back to the people who actually own it, was certainly worthwhile,” he said.
The fund snowballs as the state gets money when entities cannot track down rightful owners. Think tax return checks that were never cashed, money from expired insurance policies, deposits made on utilities and un-cashed royalty checks.
Each year, the fund gathers about $65 million worth of lost funds. It has a balance of about $70 million — and $585 million worth of liabilities.
The state must keep at least some money in the fund at all times. Should Oklahomans claim more than what’s available in the account at any given time, the state by law has to use its general revenue fund to cover the claims.
Miller said there’s some logic that a portion of the money will never be claimed, because its owners are dead and left no heirs. That’s why cash-strapped lawmakers use the money to help balance the budget, and how he can pay for outreach efforts including the commercials, which started airing this Monday.
Miller’s office uses multiple media to reunite people with their money.
At least twice a year, it pays to advertise in newspapers, as required by law. But previous billboard and radio campaigns didn’t pay off like he’d hoped, he noted.
Miller said they decided to try television, hoping to reach another segment of the population.
In the commercial, Sirius Lee Scissortail chirps an encouragement to visit the website: “You’d have to be a bird-brain not to give it a try. And I should know. I’m a bird. Be the early bird. You get that worm.”
The message is infectious, and Miller and his spokesman, Tim Allen, clearly love their new mascot.
Watching the television ad, they mimic the Scissortail, moving their lips at the right moments, and gesturing as the puppet delivers its punch lines.
“I love it because it’s our state bird and it’s cute,” Miller said. “The music is catchy. It’s funny, and it shows how simple it is to go to our website and find your lost treasure.”
It’s also an example of how Miller has ramped up efforts to return money to its rightful owners. In addition, he pays employees tasked with searching for owners of lost treasure based on performance.
The more they return, they more commission they earn. The benefit comes not from that particular claim, but from the remaining money in the account.
Last year, Miller’s staff returned about $38 million. That was up from $18 million two years earlier.
Sirius Lee Scissortail appears to be doing his job, as well.
Normally the state fields an average of 50 online claims a day. Just this week, that number has increased four-fold to more than 200.
“That’s a nice week,” Allen said, admitting that he’s relieved the bird-puppet is doing what they’d hoped it would.
The commercials are scheduled to run through Sunday. Then Scissortail gets a vacation, as the treasurer’s office advertises in newspapers.
Come April, Sirius Lee Scissortail will be back on air, squawking about nest-eggs and catching that worm.