THE idea to use $40 million in unclaimed property funds to complete the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum appears to be losing ground at the Legislature, particularly in the House. Not a surprise, perhaps, but still disappointing.
The AICCM sits half-finished along the Oklahoma River east of downtown Oklahoma City. Construction has been on hold for two years. In hand is $40 million in private money pledged to get the museum completed — provided that the state comes through with an additional $40 million.
The state has already spent $67.4 million on the project. Many members in both chambers of the Legislature are leery of using any additional state funding, particularly given the tight budget year they’re dealing with. Previous suggestions to use a bond issue for the AICCM have been roundly rejected.
Using unclaimed property funds, which are managed by the state treasurer’s office, would be an excellent fit. Last month, the Senate approved a bill to do that — but only after some members criticized not just the idea, but the treasurer’s efforts to get property returned to its owners.
The treasurer’s office did return $16 million worth of property to Oklahomans last year, a record sum that Treasurer Ken Miller credits to performance-based pay and an increased marketing budget for the program. This year, Miller believes the total could climb to $30 million.
Some Senators argued that the unclaimed property fund was “the people’s money” and therefore should be off limits. It’s not clear whether those members felt that way a year ago when the Legislature tapped the fund for $37 million for operating expenses. Or the year before that, when $25 million was removed. Indeed lawmakers have withdrawn an average of $35 million per year from the fund since 2008.
On the House side, it’s evident that Speaker Jeff Hickman is lukewarm to the museum and cultural center. Hickman, R-Fairview, said recently that one concern he has is that appropriating $40 million for this project would surely prompt calls for a similar amount to be spent in Tulsa and somewhere outside the metro areas. “So, the political reality for me is that the $40 million cultural center deal costs me $120 million,” he said.
The House minority leader, Rep. Scott Inman, D-Del City, says the 29 members of his caucus support completion of the AICCM: “We’re tired of spending hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars just to mothball it. We need to complete it.”
Hickman has said his GOP House colleagues aren’t enthused about it, and instead have other issues they’d like to see addressed. He has thus far ignored Inman’s call to give the bill a vote on the House floor.
That needs to change. The state is spending $68,000 per month to keep the AICCM mothballed. J. Blake Wade, who heads the entity developing the facility, says there is “no doubt in my mind” that many of the private donors he has secured will choose to take their money elsewhere if nothing happens this session. “Three years they’ve been committed to us,” he said. “Another year it’s going to be impossible to keep the $40 million.”
Using unclaimed property funds offer a sensible way to get the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum off high center and on its way to being a first-class destination that would benefit not just the city but the whole state. Hickman and his caucus need to make that happen.