The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Opinion

February 19, 2012

Museum needs a new plan

Oklahoma taxpayers deserve more than they have received from a state agency created 18 years ago to build the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum.

The museum, located at the intersection of Interstates 35 and 40 in Oklahoma City, is partially completed and stalled. That is despite about $90 million already invested in the project, $67.4 million of that from state taxpayers. The federal government has paid another $16.3 million, and American Indian tribes have added $4.7 million.

Now, the Native American Cultural and Education Authority has asked for another $40 million in state funds, promising efforts to match that with another $40 million in private funding necessary to complete a $170 million center.

State legislators have good reason to reject that request and be skeptical about the Native American Cultural and Education Authority’s abilities. In addition to construction funds, the state has given $1.5 million each year to the agency, which has spent two-thirds of that on salaries and benefits. Yet, with all of that time and money and state investment, the agency has landed less than $5 million in tribal or other private support for the project.

That’s not good stewardship of taxpayer funds. Certainly, the state should not invest more until private donors such as Oklahoma’s Native American tribes, with their unique sources of income, show an equal level of support for the project.

Further, the troubled agency should be dissolved and merged with another state agency with a better track record. A bill introduced by Sen. Patrick Anderson of Enid would transfer the assets and mission of the Native American Cultural and Education Authority to the Oklahoma State Historical Society.

The Historical Society has faced strong legislative criticism in years past, but it refocused and was able to build support to finish the grand Oklahoma History Museum near the State Capitol. That project required six years and $62 million to complete, about one-third of what is proposed for the Native American center.

The American Indian Cultural Center has potential to be a grand attraction, but it may need to be scaled back and built in phases with much more private support. After all, museums are not a core function of state government, and as such, they stand behind higher priorities for state funding.

And, before state taxpayers are asked to put still more money into this project, a more responsible and effective agency needs to be put in charge.

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