MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

March 9, 2014

Okla. museum funding plan still faces tough battle


Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A giant earthen mound near the banks of the Oklahoma River curiously greets tens of thousands motorists each day at the busy crossroads of Interstates 35 and 40 near downtown Oklahoma City. Beneath it sits a sprawling, unfinished shell of a museum that was envisioned two decades ago as a world-class destination to house historic artifacts and interactive learning experiences from the state's 39 federally recognized Indian tribes.

Whether construction resumes on the mothballed project will come down to the 72 members of the House Republican caucus, many of whom are wary of committing more money to a project that seems to have an insatiable appetite for state appropriations.

After nearly two decades, and more than $95 million spent on the 210-acre site, museum supporters are seeking what they contend is the final $40 million in state funding needed to finish the project. The Senate last week voted 30-17 last week to take $40 million from the state's Unclaimed Property Fund, money that will be used to match another $40 million in pledges from Oklahoma City, each of the state's 39 tribes, and corporate and individual donors.

"I've got $40 million worth of donors who have been waiting three years for this to get done," said Blake Wade, the museum's executive director, who has helped secure the private pledges and shepherded various plans to complete the museum through the Legislature in the last two years. "They're anxious to get going on the project. We're ready to go as soon as we get Gov. Mary Fallin to sign the bill, but we've got to get through the House first."

The 29 Democrats in the House already committed unanimously to supporting the bill, but newly elected House Speaker Jeff Hickman says he won't push the project forward without overwhelming support within his own caucus.

"It's cost us a lot of money. It's going to cost us a lot more, and something has to be done, but until there's a great deal of support on the Republican side of the aisle, I don't think it really matters if there's 29 votes committed on the Democratic side," said Hickman, R-Fairview. "We need to have support within our caucus, and right now I'm not hearing from our members that the timing is right this year with our budget situation we're in, to do that."

Wade and other museum supporters, including tribal leaders and former University of Oklahoma and Dallas Cowboys football coach Barry Switzer, are expected to begin meeting with individual legislators as early as this week and encouraging them to support the project. While many rank-and-file legislators support the museum's completion, it could be difficult vote to defend back home in their districts, hundreds of miles away from the state's capital city.

"I can promise you this, out of (Hickman's) 72-member caucus, there are at least 22 members who would vote for that bill in its current form, which means it would go to the governor's desk and finally, after all these years, it will get done," said House Democratic Leader Scott Inman, D-Oklahoma City.

"But I think you've got a big faction of their caucus that just doesn't like the idea. Then you have a big faction that like the idea, but don't want to be on record voting for it, because this primary environment is pretty toxic for a lot of the members, and this could be an issue used in a Republican primary. You weigh those two factors, and it makes it hard (to bring the bill for a vote in the full House)."

Another problem facing Hickman is a push by some Tulsa-area members for $40 million to construct a popular culture museum in Tulsa. And if Tulsa and Oklahoma City each get a $40 million project, Hickman is expected to hear a request for more funding for projects in rural areas.

"The political reality for me is that the $40 million cultural center deal costs $120 million," Hickman said. "It's $40 million for Oklahoma City. It's $40 million for Tulsa. And it's $40 million for the rest of the state. Because that's what my members are going to say."

Hickman also said last week his caucus hasn't reached a consensus on a separate, $160 million bond issue to pay for repairs to the state Capitol. That bill has cleared the Senate, but Hickman said his members are mulling several different options, including the possibility of using a mix of cash and bonds, or that the entire proposal be sent to a vote of the people.

"What I'm hearing from members is that they want to keep their options open for dealing with this, because I don't think we have a final plan," Hickman said. "Obviously we'll have to negotiate with the Senate and the governor on what we want to do. I know they've made their decision on a bond issue, but our members still have a lot of questions."