| May 20, 2013

A question of priorities: Taxpayers or pork projects?

The Oklahoma Legislature is considering a last-minute commitment of roughly 80 million taxpayer dollars over the next few years to two museums. The institutions in question are the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum (AICCM), still under construction in Oklahoma City near the intersection of Interstate 35 and Interstate 40, and the Oklahoma Museum of Music and Popular Culture (OKPOP), to be built in Tulsa. About half the $80 million is to go toward the AICCM, and the other half to OKPOP.

Arguments could be made for why each museum would draw visitors. The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City attracts people from around the world — though it’s a privately funded museum, not a state entity, and taxpayers aren’t on the hook if it fails.

Museums are not a core function of government. A better route for both the AICCM and OKPOP would be to make both non-appropriated entities or privatize them altogether.

This conversation has been going on for several years now. More than once, project organizers have asked state lawmakers for additional funding with the promise that they would never do so again — and each time, they come back for more. The question that remains to be answered is whether sufficient justification been made that this is a proper use of scarce taxpayer dollars.

Thus far, more than $67 million has been expended by taxpayers to fund its construction, and more is still owed in unpaid debts. In total, as OCPA has pointed out, taxpayers have committed $112 million to the project to date, yet the project is far from complete. The current $40 million AICCM is requesting from taxpayers will reportedly match another $40 million in private dollars that is on hold until taxpayers double down. These private dollars, not state dollars, are what should be used to fund the project.

With a history of mismanagement of one museum that’s not even open, it’s unfathomable that lawmakers would consider starting another such project. OKPOP is intended to showcase the achievements of entertainers, along with pieces of popular culture, connected to Oklahoma. Country music superstar Garth Brooks is making phone calls to state legislators, encouraging their vote to fund the museum.

It’s interesting that lawmakers are taking up these discussions after not fully meeting a host of needs, both real and perceived, seen by Republicans and Democrats to be facing the state of Oklahoma: state employee pay raises, particular pay hikes for state troopers and prison guards, renovations to the state Capitol building, funding for county roads and bridges, extra funding to ensure kids learn how to read, funding for state colleges and universities that will raise tuition regardless, funding to insulate agricultural producers against future droughts, etc. Not to mention, lawmakers delayed an income tax reduction for taxpayers, despite increasing this year’s appropriated budget by a quarter-billion dollars over last year.

As OCPA has stated repeatedly, it’s time to put an end to more taxpayer funding for the AICCM. If lawmakers were to again sink tens of millions into that project and commit additional tens of millions to a similar project (OKPOP) that has yet to break ground, taxpayers would rightly be exasperated.

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