Feb. 21--A state Senate proposal to use $40 million from the state's Unclaimed Property Fund to help complete Oklahoma City'sAmerican Indian Cultural Center and Museum is receiving a chilly reception among state House Republicans.
"The initial reaction from the (Republican) caucus so far is they're not sure this is going to be the year we're going to be able to address that issue," said House Speaker Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview. "It's unfortunate, because it's a challenging situation and it should have been addressed long ago."
Hickman said it is a matter of priorities for House Republicans during a tight budget year, when the Legislature has $188 million less to appropriate than it did last year.
"When you have a $188 million hole, I think it's going to be difficult to explain to our corrections employees how we were able to put $40 million into a museum and yet couldn't address the crisis there or the issues we have in DHS or other areas of state government," he said. "The initial reaction from the caucus was not overwhelming in terms of embracing that idea."
Political parties develop their positions on issues during closed caucus meetings. Hickman's statements provide insight into what Republican House members are thinking.
The $170 million cultural center project seems to have been star-crossed.
Construction began in 2005, but the project ran out of money after about $91 million had been poured into it.
Oklahoma lawmakers -- many of whom are convinced construction money was squandered and the project should have been completed long ago -- have repeatedly refused to authorize additional bond money to complete it, even though the museum is projected to be a huge tourist attraction with great economic development potential.
Construction has been suspended since mid-2012 and museum officials have been spending about $50,000 a month just to maintain and secure the site to keep it from deteriorating.
$40 million pledged
Donors have pledged $40 million to complete the museum if the state will contribute $40 million.
Last year, a plan was pending in the Legislature for tax receipts to be used for three years to help finish the museum, but the plan was abandoned when devastating tornadoes struck Moore and other Oklahoma communities, resetting the state's priorities.
This year, a new plan was developed to use $40 million from the Unclaimed Property Fund. Senate Bill 1651 sailed through the Senate Appropriations Committee earlier this week by a vote of 21-3, renewing hope among museum backers. The measure is expected to be voted on by the full Senate as early as nest week.
However, Hickman's remarks don't bode well for the museum's prospects, since the proposal needs substantial support from House Republicans, who control 72 of the 101 seats in the Oklahoma House of Representatives.
House Democratic Leader Scott Inman said Thursday that House Democrats were "encouraged" that Senate Republicans seemed to be "taking seriously the need to finish the cultural center project."
"They're long overdue projects," said Inman, of Oklahoma City.
"We're waiting to see how responsive the House Republicans are to what the Senate Republicans have put forward," he said.
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