- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 4, 2014

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - A planned Native American museum along the banks of the Oklahoma River that has become a shuttered, unfinished curiosity in the state’s capital city received a $40 million boost on Tuesday from the Oklahoma Senate.

The Republican-controlled Senate voted 30-17 for a plan to take the money from the state’s Unclaimed Property Fund to help complete the sprawling American Indian Cultural Center and Museum at the crossroads of Interstates 35 and 40, south of downtown Oklahoma City. Legislators first proposed the museum in the mid-1990s, and construction began seven years ago, but the project has been plagued by mismanagement and cost overruns.

“It has been a boondoggle since day one,” said Sen. James Halligan, R-Stillwater, who voted for the bill. “We are trapped in this circumstance.”

The state already has spent $64 million through three separate bond issues to help pay for the project, which also has received funding from Oklahoma City and the federal stimulus. The additional $40 million approved by the Senate on Tuesday would be used to match another $40 million that has been pledged to complete the project.

The matching funds include $7.4 million from Oklahoma’s 39 federally recognized tribes, $9 million from Oklahoma City, and the rest from private and corporate donors, said Blake Wade, the museum’s executive director, who has helped secure the private pledges and shepherded various plans to complete the museum through the Legislature in the last two years.

“We’re ready to go as soon as Gov. Mary Fallin signs that bill,” Wade said. “Today is a very promising day for finishing this long overdue project.”

While Fallin has long been a supporter of completing the museum, the bill first must pass the increasingly conservative House, where Speaker Jeff Hickman has said the House Republican caucus’ initial reaction to the Senate-backed plan “was not overwhelming.”

Republican critics in the Senate lambasted the bill as a raid on money that doesn’t belong to the state to fund a project that is not a core function of government.

“We’re going to take money that does not belong to us and give it to the Oklahoma money pit,” said Sen. Cliff Aldridge, R-Choctaw, a longtime opponent of the project. “I was disillusioned to think we as Republicans are fiscal conservatives. We spend money just like the Democrats did when they were in control.”

Others asked how voters in districts outside of Oklahoma City would perceive the vote on the project.

“I think it’s a very bold plan to give away $40 million in other people’s money … especially in an election year,” said Sen. Nathan Dahm, R-Broken Arrow.

Oklahoma’s Unclaimed Property Fund includes things such as 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.

Because of legislators’ concerns over past mismanagement, both the project and the state agency overseeing it - the Native American Cultural and Educational Authority - have undergone an extensive audit. And some of the state’s most notable leaders have been appointed to the museum’s governing board, including Oklahoma City Thunder owner Clay Bennett, former Dallas Cowboys and University of Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer and Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anaotubby.

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Online:

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

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