Senate won’t hear bond proposal for Indian museum

By Murray Evans
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (AP) May 2011

A $40 million bond proposal to help pay for continued construction of the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum in Oklahoma City is dead, leaving the years-long project in limbo.

Jerred Brejcha, a spokesman for Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, said recently that Republican leaders made the decision to not bring Senate Bill 980 to the full Senate, after it had been approved by a Senate committee last week.

“We want to look at all of our options going forward and make a fiscally responsible decision,” Brejcha said. “We need time to look at those.”

The museum’s executive director, Gena Timberman, said the $40 million in bond money was needed to keep construction work going until completion in 2015. The proposal would have not allowed the bond issues to be authorized until the Native American Cultural and Educational Authority had matching funds in place from private donors and other sources.

Without the commitment from the state, Timberman said, it’s hard to convince private donors to invest in the project.

“If the state of Oklahoma isn’t going to take care of its own project, why should anyone else?” she told The Associated Press. “That’s the response we’re getting from private donors and others. They want to know when it will be completed. This plan would have given us an answer.

“It is heartbreaking, but we will stay committed to this task and do everything we can to advance this mission.”

About $91 million has been invested in the project so far, with about $67.4 million of that coming from proceeds of previous bond issues and interest, she said. The federal government has paid $16.3 million while American Indian tribes have contributed $4.7 million.

There’s enough money left to continue construction work through August, and project officials now must develop plans for the demobilization of construction at the site, Timberman said.

The decision to not hear the proposal brought immediate criticism from Senate Minority Leader Andrew Rice, D-Oklahoma City, who challenged GOP leaders to allow a vote.

“This is a short-sighted decision that directly undermines the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum,” Rice said. “If the state fails to uphold its responsibility to this facility, it casts doubt on the legitimacy of the project, damaging private fundraising and commercial development efforts.”

Rice also said delaying completion of the project will increase its final costs.

There’s no hope of reviving the proposal in the House. John Estus, a spokesman for House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, said the House’s deadline to add any language to bills concerning bond issues has passed, so that body couldn’t consider the proposal.

“It has to come over from the Senate,” Estus said.

The $177.5 million project is being built along the Oklahoma River, near downtown at the junction of Interstate 35 and Interstate 40. The 300 acres donated by the city of Oklahoma City for the museum used to be the site of an oilfield, meaning extensive cleanup was required before construction could begin in 2006.

A visitors center already is finished, along with a 90-foot-high promontory mound. White steel support beams for the museum’s Hall of the People rise above the landscape, clearly visible from the nearby highways.

The project has been plagued by funding problems and it took an infusion of $6 million in federal stimulus money last October for construction to continue. Critics say the state already has spent too much money for what Sen. Dan Newberry, R-Tulsa, called a “hole in the ground.”

Sen. Steve Russell, R-Oklahoma City, said the state should not continue borrowing money for the project.

“I’m not for bonded indebtedness for eight years because we refuse to balance the budget,” Russell said. “Let’s build roads and bridges. We need them. Let’s cut things that need to be cut. Let’s build things that need to be built, but let’s not put people in this state in debt without consent.”

With the state facing a $500 million budget hole for the upcoming fiscal year and most state agencies expecting funding cuts, it’s unclear what other funding options could be considered for the project. Neither Brejcha nor Alex Weintz, a spokesman for Gov. Mary Fallin, would discuss specifics.

The museum “has the potential to be an asset to the state when it’s completed,” Weintz said. “As a vacant building and an unfinished project, it is a liability. For that reason, Governor Fallin supports completing the museum and is exploring fiscally responsible strategies for doing so.”

Estus said Steele “is absolutely supportive of finishing the cultural center as soon as possible and ... is evaluating all fiscally responsible options to ensure that happens.”

Timberman said the state needs to ensure the completion of “a state asset” and that she’s encouraged by those in state government who support the project.

“The bill may have died but the vision to build the center lives on,” she said.