, Muskogee, OK

Oklahoma News

March 8, 2014

State museum funding plan still faces tough battle

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 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.

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