LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - A request to spend $2.5 million in state money for bronze fountains at the Nebraska Capitol was placed in the hands of a legislative committee on Monday, after several lawmakers questioned the measure as a priority.
The fountains are the last unfinished design feature of the Capitol, which was built in stages between 1922 and 1932. Fountains were to sit in the each of the building’s four open-air courtyards, but the work was halted because of the Depression.
Sen. John Nelson of Omaha argued that the funding would help complete a state icon that was never finished. He also noted that the maintenance for all four fountains would cost less than $1,500 a year once the project was complete.
“The Capitol building is a state treasure,” Nelson said. “It belongs to the people - and we owe it to the people of Nebraska to ensure its completion.”
The proposal is backed by a bipartisan majority of 31 state senators. But members of the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriation Committee questioned whether the proposal was the best use of state money when compared to other needs.
Gov. Dave Heineman has also said he opposes the use of state money for the project, arguing that financing should come from private donors. A private fundraising campaign that began five years ago fizzled after generating a little more than $4,000.
The project would coincide with a build-up to Nebraska’s 150th anniversary as a state in 2017. But some senators questioned whether the desire for fountains outweighed basic maintenance needs at the Capitol, including leaky office windows, peeling paint and upgrades to the ventilation system.
Sen. Danielle Conrad of Lincoln said the Capitol was an architectural treasure, but she questioned whether the fountains were needed when weighed against building maintenance. Conrad said windows in her legislative office fail to protect against snow in the winter.
The request “seems to be a little bit more on the ‘want’ side than the ‘need’ side,” Conrad said.
Sen. Bill Kintner of Papillion suggested that organizers first look to major corporate donors. However, large donors would likely require a public acknowledgement of their contribution, such as their name on the public fountains, said Suzanne Wise, executive director of the Nebraska Arts Council.
The Nebraska Association of Former State Legislators hopes to have the fountains installed in increments over the next three years, said former Sen. Bob Wickersham.
The Legislature’s Appropriations Committee heard the testimony but took no immediate action on the bill Monday.
The panel also considered a $2 million request to create a Nebraska Sesquicentennial Fund to help celebrate the state anniversary. Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln said a commitment of state money would help attract private donors. He acknowledged Monday that he was aiming high with his $2 million budget request, but said a state contribution would provide seed money to jump-start the fundraising effort.
Jeff Searcy, who chairs a state sesquicentennial committee, said the celebration would give Nebraskans a chance “to reflect on who we are, where we come from, and the bright future that lies ahead.
“I truly believe the sesquicentennial is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said.
The money would pay for books and educational materials, commemorative items, official seals to go on high school and college diplomas, and decals for an estimated 20,000 Nebraska trucks that travel the country, said Allen Beermann, a member helping to organize the celebration. Beermann said past celebrations have included parade floats.
“These are things that all give the state something to be proud about,” he said.
The conservative taxpayers’ group Americans for Prosperity took issue with the $2 million funding proposal, with a spokesman calling it a “slush fund” that lacked transparency.
“At the risk of looking like a killjoy, it’s amazing to us that this celebration could cost $2 million,” said Matt Litt, a spokesman for the group funded by conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.
The fountains funding bill is LB797. The anniversary celebration funding bill is LB704.
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