By TIM TALLEY
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ A plan that would spend $40 million of the state’s Unclaimed Property Fund to complete the American Indian Cultural Center & Museum got the blessing of an Oklahoma House committee Wednesday, but it remained uncertain whether it would go to a vote before the full House.
The House Appropriation and Budget Committee vote 16-10 for the measure despite concerns by some lawmakers that completing the unfinished museum is not a priority for the state and that the money should be used to fund salary increases for teachers and state workers.
“This is a no-win situation,” said Rep. Weldon Watson, R-Tulsa. A vote for the proposal would ignore other needs at a time when the state is facing a $185 million budget shortfall, but a vote against it would mean the unfinished structure, located at the intersections of Interstate 35 and 40, would remain empty.
“And the blame will be on this Legislature,” Watson said.
“We can’t afford it this year. That’s the bottom line,” said Rep. Pat Ownbey, R-Ardmore.
The plan would use $40 million from the Unclaimed Property Fund to match another $40 million in pledges including $7.4 million from Oklahoma’s 39 federally recognized tribes, $9 million from the city of Oklahoma City and donations from various private and corporate donors.
But Republican House Speaker Jeff Hickman, of Fairview, has said he wants 51 of the 72 House Republicans to support the plan before it could go for a vote in the House. The chamber’s 29 Democrats have pledged to support the bill, but many House conservatives remain opposed to continued state funding of the project.
“It has become a folly,” said Rep. Mark McCullough, R-Sapulpa. The project, conceived 20 years ago, has already received about $95 million in funding, including about $60 million from the state, but has been plagued with cost overruns and mismanagement.
“The numbers just don’t add up,” Ownbey said.
Supporters said that when completed, the museum will be a world-class attraction that will attract thousands of visitors and energize the state’s economy.
“We need to finish it. It’s sitting out there in mothballs,” said the measure’s author, Rep. Dave Dank, R-Oklahoma City.
If funding is approved, the cultural center will be self-sustaining and administrators will seek no additional funding from the state, said Blake Wade, the museum’s executive director who has helped secure many of the private pledges. Completion is scheduled for 2017 if funding is authorized this year.
“Finally, the government is getting out of the Native American cultural center,” Wade said.
He said land surrounding 173,000-square-foot structure will support hotels, restaurants, shops and a variety of other commercial developments that will support operation of the museum.
“There is an economic boom that will happen,” Wade said.
“I think it will pay for itself,” Dank said.
Supporters said the museum complex will compliment other attractions developed in Oklahoma City in recent years, including the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum and the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder.
“There is a synergy going on in this capital city,” said Rep. Paul Wesselhoft, R-Moore.
Dank said that Oklahoma, once known as Indian Territory, has a unique heritage that will be on display at the museum and cultural center.
“This is us. This is who we are,” Dank said. “I love my state and I love my state’s heritage.”