Taxpayers still owe for Oklahoma capitol dome

Monday, October 20th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Oklahoma taxpayers are still on the hook for at least $5 million to pay for the long-completed Capitol Dome.

The money is needed to pay off a loan negotiated to cover final construction costs for completing the $20.8 million project in the fall of 2002.

Blake Wade, executive director of the Oklahoma Centennial Commission, said financing for the project was complicated when donors _ including 13 who pledged at least $1 million each _ elected to pay out their contributions over five to eight years.

He said that has driven up interest costs, but officials still thought finances were in good shape until a $5 million bond issue for the dome was recently ruled unconstitutional by the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

In October 2002, former Gov. Frank Keating and others declared the dome project paid for through pledges from additional donors.

The $5 million in bond money was not needed, Wade said at the time, and could be used for other Centennial projects.

The dome was dedicated Nov. 16, Statehood Day, in an elaborate ceremony featuring singing, dancing and fireworks.

It was the crowning achievement of eight years in office for Keating, who was the prime mover behind the dome project.

``He wanted to get it done during his time,'' Wade said.

Now officials have confirmed for the first time the full tab for the gleaming structure has not been satisfied and that a $5 million loan was made through the Bank of America to finish the project.

That revelation comes as lawmakers and state agency directors face the prospects of another tight budget year.

``It's a mess that we inherited,'' said Scott Meacham, Gov. Brad Henry's finance secretary and director of the Office of State Finance.

Wade said private donors have pledged $20 million, which, when combined with a $1.25 million state appropriation, would have been enough to pay for the project if the money had come in at a faster pace.

``We would still have been all right if the bond issue hadn't fallen through,'' he said.

As it now stands, Meacham said, the state has an obligation to pay off the $5 million loan, which he said was not backed by donor pledges, as was an earlier $11.3 million loan used to finance construction costs.

``We obviously got the dome. We got the money from them. We spent it and I feel like we are obligated to pay it back,'' Meacham said.

The OSF director said the bank has agreed to extend the loan until July 1, 2004, after receiving a letter from Henry, House Speaker Larry Adair and Senate President Pro Tem Cal Hobson.

Depending on when it is paid off, the added cost to the state could be $5.5 million, Meacham said. He said the debt could go higher if donors do not follow through on all of their pledges.

``As long as everyone continues to pay, we will be doing fine,'' Wade said. ``But if someone misses a pledge, that would be a severe problem.''

Meacham said lawmakers will have to come up with the $5 million next year through either a direct appropriation or another bond issue that passes constitutional muster.

Wade said his pitch to private corporations and individuals in securing donations for the dome was that the state would put up a percentage of the money.

So far, those donating $1 million or more have made good on their payment schedules, he said.

The names of 13 donors who contributed $1 million or more to pay for the dome are inscribed in 6-inch-tall letters in ``a ring of honor'' inside the 155-foot-tall dome.

The decision to do that drew some criticism at the time.

Among the names are Phillips Petroleum Co., which contributed $3.5 million, and the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, which donated $2.5 million. General Motors, Hobby Lobby Stores and the family of former state Sen. Gene Stipe, D-McAlester, each contributed $1 million to the project.