It is a worthy project. However, neither merit nor nobility by themselves justify a public expenditure.
As lawmakers, we must be judicious in our allocation of public monies. To be responsible with the public trust, we must be prudent in our spending and hold state agencies accountable. When AICCM, a state agency, approached the Legislature this year seeking a $40 million bond issue, it became increasingly clear that the only funding avenue being explored is the Oklahoma taxpayer. Museum personnel told us that if we failed to pass a third bond, it would send a chilling message to potential donors that the state of Oklahoma did not support the project. They promised that this would be the final “last time” they asked for state money.
To date, Oklahoma taxpayers have invested $67.4 million in the project. The state foots the bill for an additional $1.5 million annually to support the agency’s staff. On May 23, 2008, a day after the Legislature passed a second bond, an AICCM press release stated the $25 million bond would “fund all of the building structures” and that the agency would raise “the remaining $75 million from private sources including American Indian tribes.” I was shocked and discouraged to find that as of May 5, 2011, the museum had raised just $266,289.94 from private, non-tribal sources since May 23, 2008. As of the drafting of this commentary, the agency has reported a modest, albeit woefully inadequate, increase in the amount of private dollars raised.
AICCM gave the Legislature and the people of Oklahoma an assurance that it would aggressively and effectively raise private funding, but it has failed miserably.
Proponents of increasing the bonded indebtedness for this project to more than $107 million claim the alternative is to bulldoze the building and call it quits. While this paints an ominous picture, it is patently false. It is time for a fundamental shift in vision and direction for AICCM. The agency must direct its fundraising efforts away from the state taxpayer. After all the assurances and disappointments, it has become clear the agency will not get serious about private fundraising efforts until the fountain of taxpayer funding runs dry.
Completion of the AICCM will happen. State government, however, is not obligated to support every good project — it is only obligated to support legitimate functions of government, which cannot be done by the private sector. After investing $67.4 million in this project, state government has demonstrated its commitment to the center’s completion. It’s time now for the agency to make good on its promise to the Legislature and the people of Oklahoma and undertake a serious effort at private sector fundraising.
This is a real test of the new governing Republican majority. We cannot erase decades of careless stewardship of taxpayer dollars overnight, but we can chart a new course — one that holds agencies accountable and jealously guards the trust put in us by the voters of Oklahoma.
Sen. Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, represents District 47, which encompasses northwest Oklahoma City, portions of Edmond and Deer Creek.