Legislators should get creative to maintain a state asset.
The long-neglected James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History appears about to have its moment in a conference committee spotlight. Created in 1872 by the state and sited on the campus of the University of Minnesota, the Bell’s 75-year-old facility has been treated as a near-orphan in recent years, excluded from university funding requests and denied state funding via gubernatorial vetoes and legislative parsimony.
But the Bell has found a champion in House capital investments chair Alice Hausman. The St. Paul DFLer put full funding — $51.5 million — for a new Bell Museum into her bonding bill. After several rounds of downsizing, it is still there — for now.
Keeping it there will be a major challenge. University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler singled out the Bell’s allocation Tuesday when he issued a stern statement objecting to the House bill’s tightfisted response to other university requests.
“The University of Minnesota recognizes the Bell Museum as a great asset to the state,” Kaler said. “However … we support funding for the Bell Museum as long as it does not divert money from projects requested by the regents for the university.” He noted that the House bill that cleared the Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday fully funds only one of the university’s six top priority requests — that for renovation of the Tate Laboratory of Physics.
It’s hard to conclude that the Bell isn’t squeezing the university’s share of the House bill, when those items are packaged together on summary sheets and in House File 2490’s text. But Hausman is correct when she says that the Bell is not a university facility. It’s a creature of the state, created to fulfill a scientific and educational mission first embraced by the Legislature 142 years ago. Its cramped Art Deco building may look charming, but it’s an impediment to the fulfillment of that mission today.
When the Bell Museum first appealed to the state for a facilities upgrade in 2008, the forecast cost was $39 million. It’s north of $50 million today, and counting. Ignoring the Bell’s plight for another year will only make its eventual rescue more costly.
The Legislature has demonstrated considerable creativity in adding buildings to the Capitol complex without general obligation bonding, using lease-back agreements. The Bell is a state facility, every bit as much as a new state Senate office building will be. Surely, legislators who want bonding authorizations reserved for the university and other purposes can be as creative with Bell financing as they have been with their own office needs.
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