- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 19, 2014

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - The Oklahoma Legislature would tap $40 million from the state’s Unclaimed Property Fund to help complete a Native American museum in Oklahoma City under a bill that overwhelmingly cleared a Senate committee Wednesday.

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted 21-3 for the bill to finish the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum along the banks of the Oklahoma River. The state funding would be used to match $40 million in private donations from tribes, companies and other donors that have been pledged to complete the project.

“All 39 Oklahoma tribes are excited and all Oklahomans should be that we took this giant step in the right direction today,” said Blake Wade, the museum’s executive director who has helped secure the private pledges and shepherd various plans to complete the museum through the Legislature in the last two years.

Seven years after the start of construction, the sprawling $170 million museum at the crossroads of Interstates 35 and 40 remains unfinished, but the Legislature has balked in recent years at providing more money.

But even longtime opponents of spending state money to pay for the museum praised Committee Chairman Sen. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond, for coming up with a way to fund it.

“No one has worked harder to get this done,” said Sen. Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, one of three members who voted against the bill. “This agency has turned around, and I applaud their efforts.”

Oklahoma’s Unclaimed Property Fund includes things like stock certificates, utility rebates, jewelry, coins and other valuables that are determined by the Oklahoma treasurer to be abandoned. The fund currently has a balance of $90 million, and the $40 million was determined earlier this year to be the amount the fund could afford to pay and still maintain sufficient reserves, said Tim Allen, a spokesman for the state treasurer.

The bill next will be heard by the full Senate before being sent to the House, where its fate is uncertain. The House has been increasingly resistant to the idea of issuing state bonds to pay for the museum’s construction, but tapping the Unclaimed Property Fund could win the project more supporters.

Wade said both the project and the agency overseeing it have undergone an extensive audit. And some of the state’s most notable leaders have been appointed to its governing board, including Oklahoma City Thunder owner Clay Bennett, former Dallas Cowboys and University of Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer, and Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anaotubby.

“We’ve done everything they’ve asked us to do,” Wade said.

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Online:

Senate Bill 1651: http://bit.ly/1nLlOZc

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Sean Murphy can be reached at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy