MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Local News

March 10, 2014

Consolidation bill worries history experts

A bill requested by Gov. Mary Fallin may affect the future of local historical sites.

“The Murrell Home, Cabin Creek Battlefield, Sequoyah Cabin, the Fort Gibson site and the Battle of Honey Springs site will all be affected by that House bill,” said David Fowler, director of the Fort Gibson Historical Site.

House Bill 3028 proposes to make the Oklahoma Historical Society a division within the Tourism Department.

“Combining these agencies will save taxpayers money,” Fallin said in a media release.

Dr. Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society, said there is “no advantage” to the proposal.

The Historical Society has been a separate but collaborative source for Oklahoma historical education and preservation since 1893.

HB 3028 would abolish OHS membership and change the OHS board of directors to an advisory board. Blackburn said there are 10,000 OHS members.

“They are like our shareholders,” Blackburn said.

If the bill passes, the board would only serve as an advisory board. Blackburn said the board will change from citizen-based to political-based.

“Right now the board of directors has the ultimate authority,” Blackburn said.

In terms of finances, the membership dues and donations create $800,000 per year for the Oklahoma Historical Society.

House Bill 3028 would transfer all funds, including a $3.9 million endowment, to the Tourism Department.

“We raise $3 million on average because we are an independent, non-political organization,” Blackburn said.

The projected costs for the new museum project at the Battle of Honey Springs is $2 million. Blackburn said $200,000 to $300,000 of that money will come from the state. The additional money comes from OHS, he said.

House Bill 3028 would transfer title of all collections, library materials, and historical properties acquired over the past 120 years to the Tourism Department.

Dr. William Corbett, vice president of the OHS board of directors and chairman of the sites and museum committee, said the mission of the Tourism Department and the mission of the OHS are different.

The OHS has put a lot of money into Fort Gibson, about $1 million, Corbett said. Of that, $200,000 was state money. The rest was secured by grants written by staff members, Corbett said.

“What we’ve done there is take 200,000 and turned it into $1 million,” Corbett said. “These people are experts, the staffs are experts, these are not people that you just find in an agency like tourism.”

Under House Bill 3028, the Oklahoma Arts Council would also be consolidated into the Department of Tourism.

“Housing these two agencies as independent entities in the Department of Tourism will enhance, not detract from their missions,” Fallin said in the media release.

Emmy Scott Stidham, president of the board of directors and Checotah resident, said OHS would serve Oklahoma better as a separate entity.

“The whole idea is that we have been a free standing organization for 120 years,” Stidham said.

A special board of directors meeting was called to discuss the house bill on Feb. 12.

The board is composed of 13 members appointed by OHS members and 12 appointed by the governor.

At the meeting a unanimous vote revealed all the board members disapproved of HB 3028.

“That message has been conveyed to the Legislature,” Stidham said.

If the bill is scheduled to be heard on the floor Thursday, the process of the bill advancing will continue.

“If it is not scheduled by March 13, it dies. If it is scheduled and passes the full House, it advances to the Senate, where it starts at the committee level, probably in Appropriations and Budget,” Blackburn said.

Blackburn said even if the bill is “killed” there is a chance it could be brought back to life again in another form.

“Even if the bill dies somewhere along this circuitous route, consolidation can pop up in an appropriation bill as an amendment,” Blackburn said.

Reach E.I. Hillin at (918) 684-2926 or ehillin@muskogeephoenix.com.

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