A top state legislative panel made a late addition to the two-year building budget on Tuesday, voting to approve a $3 million Hmong Cultural Center in Milwaukee.
The project is a legacy of state Sen. Gary George, D-Milwaukee, who was defeated in last week’s recall election. During an overnight debate on the state budget over the summer, Senate Republicans wooed George across the aisle to vote for their version of the spending bill by adding a package of provisions that included the cultural center.
Gov. Jim Doyle vetoed the project from the budget, asserting that he objects to “the last-minute introduction of these provisions in a late-night budget amendment.”
However, in his veto message, he said he was “committed to assisting the Hmong community work through the (State) Building Commission rather than last-minute budget amendments.”
A main reason Doyle gutted the cultural center from the budget was because the provision mandated that the building go up at the intersection of National Avenue and 16th Street. Tying the state’s hand to one location contradicts established Building Commission policy.
Sen. Bob Welch, R-Redgranite, introduced this new bill committing the state to put up $3 million in borrowing for the project, and George signed on as a co-sponsor.
This proposal could gain more traction with the governor since it doesn’t include specific directions on where the cultural center would be built; that decision would be left to the Building Commission, according to the proposal.
The Joint Finance Committee approved Welch’s bill 10-4 on Tuesday, with a mixture of Democrats and Republicans on both sides of tally.
Location, location, location
Sen. Russ Decker, D-Schofield, voted against the cultural center, saying that many communities statewide have significant Hmong populations and all are deserving of some kind of state assistance. He offered an amendment to replace the $3 million in debt with a one-time grant of $150,000 for Hmong community initiatives in several counties.
“It’s nice to build things, but when it comes to helping out, it’s better to help them learn or (offer them improved health care),” Decker said. “Building this is good for folks of the Hmong community in Milwaukee. We’ll build one in Milwaukee, and then folks (outstate) will say, ‘How about us?'”
Decker also said the $235,000 in annual debt payments on the $3 million would saddle the Legislature with a structural deficit in 2005.
But Rep. Michael Huebsch, R-West Salem, said the Milwaukee project would send a desirable signal to Hmong communities around Wisconsin that lawmakers recognize their growing numbers in the state and their support for America during the Vietnam War. He added that he considered the $3 million in the “upper echelon” of appropriate uses of tax funds for building projects.
“These individuals came to our country, and they were our allies,” Huebsch said. “Obviously, you need to pick a location. This will mean something to Hmong communities in Wausau and La Crosse.”
The $3 million in borrowing will essentially become a grant to the Hmong community in Milwaukee. That means the project, if Doyle ultimately approves it, would fall outside of state building program jurisdiction, except for the Building Commission’s role in determining a location, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
State government has sold bonds for similar community building projects in the past, including $1 million for a Nash Auto Museum in Kenosha and $1 million for a Swiss Cultural Center in New Glarus.
Jeremy Harrell can be reached at 608-260-8570 or by email.