By Sean Murphy
OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma Senate unveiled a new plan on Thursday to divert $80 million in state sales and use taxes over a four-year period to pay for the completion of an American Indian museum in Oklahoma City and build a new popular culture museum in Tulsa.
A Senate budget committee approved both measures, which next must be considered by a similar committee in the House, where the proposals are likely to face strong resistance.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Sen. Clark Jolley said the new approach to funding the projects was needed because of the strong aversion in the increasingly conservative House to issue bonds to pay for state projects.
"Because of the reluctance to do bonds for these projects, they were either not going to get done or we were going to have to utilize state dollars to do so," said Jolley, R-Edmond. "This allows for the projects to be completed without bonded indebtedness, but also gets this hopefully off the plate with the Legislature so we no longer have to have this conversation about what we do with this project that began almost 20 years ago and is still unfinished."
The first bill would divert $40 million in use taxes during the next four years to complete the unfinished American Indian Cultural Center and Museum located along the Oklahoma River at the intersection of interstates 40 and 35 near downtown Oklahoma City. Use taxes are those paid on internet purchases and tangible personal property purchased out of state and brought into Oklahoma.
The museum has been a sore spot for legislators because construction began more than a decade ago and has included $63 million in funding from three separate bond proposals approved by the Legislature. Additional money has come from private donors, Oklahoma City and federal stimulus funds.
Museum supporters say they've secured $40 million in pledges from private donors and only need one final $40 million appropriation from the Legislature to complete the project, but many lawmakers are skeptical.
"On two separate occasions we've promised the taxpayers of Oklahoma that was the last state money we were going to spend on it," said Sen. Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City. "I believe we're going back on our word to the taxpayers.
"My desire is to finish it, but to finish it with zero more state dollars."
The second proposal, which narrowly passed the committee on a 13-12 vote, would divert $40 million over four years to help construct the OKPOP museum, a planned four-story building to be located in the Brady Arts District of Tulsa. The Tulsa museum has support from many Republicans because of a detailed business plan prepared by the Oklahoma Historical Society, which would manage the museum and a planned parking garage that would generate revenue to help fund operations. The historical society also has received several donations of memorabilia from Oklahoma-based artists or their estates, including recent contributions from actress Mary Kay Place and musicians Bob Wills, Leon Russell and Ernie Fields, Sr.
"I think Oklahoma is missing out on a lot of tourism dollars that other states are able to capture," said Rep. Lee Denney, R-Cushing. "We have a rich, rich heritage as far as the music industry, the film industry. I think it would be a great way to honor them and have another tourist attraction in the state."
House Speaker T.W. Shannon said Thursday afternoon before the proposals were unveiled in the Senate that he was unfamiliar with the details and would discuss both bills with members of the Republican caucus on Monday.
"We haven't talked about it, and so I'm not certain," said Shannon, R-Lawton. "I don't know what the appetite is for either one, to be honest with you, because we just haven't spent a lot of time on it."
The 29 Democrats in the 101-member House and 12 in the 48-member Senate could play an integral part in securing passage of either or both proposals.
Senate Minority Leader Sen. Sean Burrage said he was also unfamiliar with the details of the proposals and would discuss them with his caucus next week.
"It's a last-minute proposal that I'll have to discuss with my caucus," said Burrage, D-Claremore, who said he preferred a bond issue while interest rates are so low. "I regret that today members of the committee were given only minutes to consider the proposal when we've been here for four months now."