A bill to use $40 million from the state’s unclaimed property fund to help pay for the completion of the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum in Oklahoma City was approved Wednesday by the House Appropriations and Budget Committee.
The vote was 16-10.
The measure, which previously cleared the Senate, now heads to the House calendar, where it faces an uncertain future.
House Speaker Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview, previously has said he doesn’t plan to bring it up for a vote on the House floor unless museum backers can show they have vote pledges from 51 House Republicans — which would be enough to pass the bill without support from any House Democrats.
House Minority Leader Scott Inman has said all 29 House Democrats support the measure, but that won’t matter if Republican leaders refuse to allow a vote.
“We have enough votes to pass the bill on the floor, but the speaker has said...that he wants 51 Republican votes. I don’t know if we can get there on that or not,” said House author David Dank, R-Oklahoma City. “We’ve passed a lot of bills out here — controversial bills that I’ve been opposed to — that certainly didn’t have 51 Republican votes, not only beforehand but when they were voted on.”
But Dank remains hopeful.
“There will be a lot of discussion,” Dank said. “I think our leadership wants to do something about this....We’ll just keep working.”
Discussions were spirited during Wednesday’s committee meeting.
“I think this thing could have an impact that would bring people from all over the country and all over the world,” Dank said. “We need to finish it....I think it will attract hundreds of thousands of people a year.”
“This will be the biggest thing that ever hit the state of Oklahoma,” echoed Blake Wade, executive director of the organization developing the museum. “There is an economic boom that will happen if you allow this to happen. We have hotels, a convention center, restaurant — the south side of that river will boom with economic development.”
Several House members said their opposition was a matter of priorities.
“If this $40 million is used for this, who do you propose to cut — common education, would that be less money to them, or would we not pay employee pay increases this year?” asked committee chairman Scott Martin, R-Norman.
State Rep. Sean Roberts, R-Hominy, attempted to gut the bill, introducing an amendment that would have taken away funding from the museum and given half of the $40 million to education and designated the other half for repairs to the state Capitol building.
The amendment was tabled by 21-4.
Roberts followed up with several other unfriendly amendments that also failed to gain support.
Committee members repeatedly sought assurances that if they vote to put $40 million more into the project, museum backers won’t come back wanting more.
“It has become a folly,” said state Rep. Mark McCullough, R-Sapulpa, who urged House members to cut their losses.
About $91 million has been spent on the museum so far, but builders ran out of money in July 2012.
Since then, the state agency that runs it has been paying about $68,000 a month to secure and maintain the site, which is located just southeast of the intersection of Interstate 40 and Interstate 35 in Oklahoma City.
Backers say it will take $80 million to finish the museum, and they have $40 million in pledges lined up if the state will just provide the other $40 million.
Several committee members expressed frustration that the museum remains unfinished, despite the state previously having appropriated money for the project with the understanding it would be completed.