OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A plan to issue $200 million in bonds to repair the nearly century-old state Capitol and several nearby state buildings was overwhelmingly defeated Wednesday by the Oklahoma House.
Meanwhile, the state Senate narrowly rejected a plan to issue another $40 million in bonds to complete the unfinished American Indian Cultural Center and Museum in Oklahoma City but approved a $20 million bond proposal for a popular culture museum in downtown Tulsa.
House members voted 77-15 against issuing bonds to repair the crumbling Capitol, where barricades have been erected to block visitors from accessing the Capitol’s south steps because chunks of limestone and mortar have fallen from the crumbling facade.
Repairs are also needed at the nearby Jim Thorpe office building, where officials say the air conditioning system no longer works and its boilers are about to collapse.
Opponents of the projects argued it was fiscally irresponsible to approve $200 million in bonds to repair the Capitol, built between 1914 and 1917, while lawmakers consider an income tax cut.
“The new definition of fiscally conservative — decrease services and increase taxes,” said House Democratic Leader Rep. Scott Inman, D-Del City. “Now we’re being told to truly be fiscally conservative, we have to go $200 million deeper into debt.
“Why should we ask our children 30 years from now to pay for a poor decision we’ll make today?”
Rep. Cory Williams, D-Stillwater, said the project was fiscally irresponsible.
“I want to fix the people’s building … but would you rather we pay cash or would you rather indebt your grandchildren?” Williams said. “We’ve got the cash. Don’t use my kids’ credit card.”
House Speaker Kris Steele, who voted for the plan, described the vote as “unfortunate” and said its failure will put more pressure on lawmakers to act next year.
“These buildings won’t fix themselves,” Steele, R-Shawnee, said in a statement. “It reflected just how skittish members are about government debt in light of all the debt Congress has racked up in Washington. While Oklahoma has managed its debt well, the fact is it’s just a tough time to incur any debt given the political climate.”
The bond issue for the Indian museum failed by a single vote in the Senate. Senators voted 24-22 on the measure when 25 votes are needed in the 48-member Senate to pass a bill.
Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City, who could have cast the deciding vote for the project, abstained from voting and cited ethics rules that prohibit lawmakers from voting on bills that could benefit companies for which they work.
“I work for a law firm that did significant work on this issue,” Holt said. “For me, it was pretty open and shut.”
Holt declined to say how he would have voted.
Opponents complained that the project, which has been under development east of downtown Oklahoma City since 2000, had been mismanaged and that the state has already issued $63.4 million in bonds for the incomplete structure. Annual bond payments are currently $5.5 million a year and would jump to $9 million if the bond issue passed.
“Would you manage your personal finances in the same manner?” said Sen. Josh Brecheen, R-Coalgate. Brecheen said approval of the bonds would violate core beliefs of conservatives who he said were elected on the promise of fiscal responsibility.
“The bonded indebtedness is amazing,” he said. “How do conservatives justify this? That’s not what put you here.”
Sen. Cliff Aldridge, R-Midwest City, said museum officials say they need another $50 million to finish the project plus $30 million for exhibits. But $40 million in private donations has already been collected, and many of the exhibits will come from the Smithsonian Institution and Oklahoma-based Indian tribes.
“At some point we have to say enough is enough, and I think we’ve reached that point,” Aldridge said.
Supporters said the museum said it would attract tourists from around the world and be an economic boon to the region.
“I think it would be a true shame if we don’t complete this project,” said Sen. Susan Paddock, D-Ada.
Sen. Tom Ivester, D-Elk City, said the state’s culture and heritage — even its name — is tied to American Indians. Oklahoma means “red person” in the Choctaw language.
“This bill is about commitment,” said Senate Democratic Leader Sean Burrage of Claremore, a member of the Choctaw tribe.
The Senate voted 25-21 for the $20 million bond issue to build the Oklahoma Museum of Popular Culture in Tulsa. It now goes to the House, where its future is uncertain.
President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, said the $33 million museum project is also being supported by private donors. Bingman said $350 million has already been invested in area where the museum will be located.
“It’s really thriving,” he said.
Associated Press reporter Sean Murphy contributed to this report.