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 Indeed lawmakers have withdrawn an average of $35 million per year from the fund since 2008.
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