More time has been put on the clock for backers of the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum to win legislative support for the half-built facility.
And former University of Oklahoma football coach Barry Switzer could soon be working to see if any of his Sooner magic can sway lawmakers to appropriate $40 million for the project in downtown Oklahoma City.
A bill that would have transferred the cultural center to the Oklahoma Historical Society won't be heard this year, said Rep. Don Armes, chairman of the House of Representatives Budget Subcommittee on Natural Resources and Regulatory Services. The panel had been scheduled to hear Senate Bill 511 on Monday.
Armes, R-Faxon, said a couple of new members have been appointed to the Native American Cultural and Educational Authority, which oversees the cultural center, and he thought it fair to give them time to see what they can do.
“It's probably not good timing,” he said. “We're just going to wait and see how some of the new board members kind of get along and give some of the new members time for new input. You hate to place guys on a board and then say, ‘Oh by the way we just did away with your board.'”
Armes said the bill could be brought up again next year if necessary; legislative sessions last two years.
“We'll just kind of sit on it and see what happens,” he said.
History vs. culture
Armes said concerns also have been raised whether the Historical Society is the best fit for the cultural center. Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Historical Society, said his agency, which collects, preserves and shares artifacts, has a different role than a cultural center, which looks at people and the way they lived.
Blake Wade, executive director of the Native American Cultural and Educational Authority, said putting the cultural center under the Historical Society could have jeopardized the $40 million in private pledges he's secured to help complete the center. The pledges would turn into cash when the state matches that amount, which would be enough to pay for the project's completion, he said.
The pledges are set to expire at the end of this year, Wade said.
The decision to set aside SB 511 this year allows the board to focus its energy on talking with lawmakers about finding $40 million in the budget for fiscal year 2014 — which starts July 1 — for the project, he said.
State funds would have to be available by June 1 in order for the project to be completed in December 2014, Wade said.
Oklahoma City business executive Clay Bennett, who is also president of the Oklahoma City Thunder ownership group, was appointed earlier this month by House Speaker T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, to the Native American Cultural and Educational Authority.
Wade said Gov. Mary Fallin, who supports the project, is considering Switzer's application to serve on the authority. Switzer, who led OU to three national titles during his 1973-88 tenure as the Sooners coach, backed Fallin's opponent — then Democratic Lt. Gov. Jari Askins — in the 2010 election.
“He'd be great to have because we really need to get fundraisers on there,” Wade said. “I know that Coach Switzer is really, really wanting this American Indian Cultural Center to go. I hope Gov. Fallin does appoint him.”
Asked to comment, Alex Weintz, Fallin's communications director, said only that the governor has not yet made an appointment to the authority.
New board members and the gaining of endorsement from the 39 federally recognized tribes in Oklahoma is providing momentum for the authority, he said. Other positive developments in the past few months include the financial supporters who made the $40 million in pledges agreeing to extend their offer through this year and the findings of a special state audit that showed no financial wrongdoing by the authority.
But Sen. Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, author of SB 511, filed his measure because he was concerned by the audit's findings that criticized the authority for choosing highest-cost options when funding wasn't secure.
Funds in danger?
The American Indian Cultural Center and Museum project has benefited from three previous state bond issues totaling $63 million, as well as $14.5 million in federal funding and $4.9 million and 250 acres of land from Oklahoma City.
A bill authorizing a $40 million bond issue for the center failed by one vote last year in the Senate. A growing number of legislators are becoming leery about increasing the state's bond indebtedness.
“I'm hoping that they see that we're trying to do everything in the world to answer their questions,” Wade said. “I would say that if we do not get this done this year that the donors are going to want to withdraw their funds, and then it would be trying to raise $80 million. That's how critical this situation is.”