The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Local and State News

March 11, 2014

Bill to consolidate museum, tourism is on a short rope

Without a hearing this week, a bill that would merge Oklahoma Historical Society with the state’s tourism department will expire.

By one vote, House Bill 3028 got a favorable recommendation in committee last week, but it has yet to appear on the House calendar — the official list of bills that will be heard.

OHS Executive Director Dr. Bob Blackburn said if it’s not on the calendar by 5 p.m. today, it can’t be heard again this year.

He said he doesn’t know whether it will be heard by Thursday, the last day of legislative sessions this week, but he has heard from supporters of the OHS.

“I do know that the mailroom at the Legislature has been flooded with letters and cards. And I do know in the speaker’s office and elsewhere, people are keeping ledgers of people calling in expressing themselves about this,” Blackburn said. “It is almost unanimously against.”

HB 3028 consolidates OHS and the Arts Council with Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department. It also would make the OHS governing board an advisory committee.

Gov. Mary Fallin made the idea public in her State of the State address last month. It was two weeks before an actual bill was presented that outlined what the changes would mean, Blackburn said.

“Finally, I saw it and realized the impact with abolishing membership, transferring all of the property, all of the collections, all of the cash, all of the endowments to tourism,” he said. “These are fundamental changes.”

The tourism agency and OHS, he said, have different goals.

“We’re heritage and education, and they are economic development and image. They don’t really mesh very well,” said Blackburn.

Supporters have said a benefit would be that tourism would be able to market Oklahoma’s museum sites, like Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center, which is state-supported.

“Well, why aren’t they doing that now? They could be doing that,” Blackburn said. “We have to pay for all of the ad space we get in tourism publications. They could be doing more on marketing now and of course, we’re trying to do all we can to provide the content for tourism.”

He warned Oklahoma’s efforts to educate and preserve history could lose millions in the process. He foresees at least $1 million in lost membership fees.

“We think that the downside far outweighs any benefits there could be to consolidation. We run pretty lean all the time,” he said. “At Spiro Mound, we just completed a project there that’s dealing with mounds that were built in 800 A.D. And we’re dealing with a lot of homes and buildings that are at least 200 years old. With the complexity of all of that, we do that with one purchasing agent and four accountants keeping all of this straight.”

Even if the bill does not survive this week, the idea could return later this session, which runs through May. It could reappear in a Senate bill as an amendment, be included in an appropriations agreement later this session or be dropped into a conference committee report in the last days of session.

“There’s several ways it can stay alive. The way I’m looking at this, it’s a 12-round match. We’re through round two and we’ve still got to be prepared,” said Blackburn.

Neither the bill’s primary sponsor, state Rep. Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie, nor House Speaker Jeff Hickman of Fairview, returned requests for comment by press time Tuesday.

Blackburn praised museum patrons and supporters who have contacted legislators to express their wish to see HB 3028 fail.

“Even if the bill isn’t heard, the people have been heard. They are expressing themselves about their fondness for the Oklahoma Historical Society,” he said.

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