Touring the State Historical Museum of Iowa / Lee Wright

April 5, 2016; Des Moines Register

Some Iowa legislators are complaining that the agency that oversees the state’s flagship museum spent money on salaries for planning for anticipated repairs and renovations. Multiple Iowa newspaper and TV headlines recently focused on what’s purported to be a misappropriation of funds but which might more likely be some political hot air or confusion about overhead costs and the role of private donors.

Iowa’s state museum is in need of significant repairs that may cost up to $80 million. The legislature is considering appropriations for about $65 million over a five-year period with the balance to be raised from private funds. Already, the legislature has approved $3.65 million for immediate repairs and is planning for possible renovation work.

In question is $176,000 used to cover a portion of the salaries of several people involved in the planning process over the 2015 and 2016 budget years. Portions of the salaries of the director, Mary Cownie, and two other senior staff were paid from the initial $3.65 million appropriation designated for immediate repairs and planning for possible renovation work.

A statement from the agency notes, “Given certain staff time dedicated to the planning process, a portion of their salaries use these appropriated funds, which was allowable and approved by the legislature.”

However, the reaction to paying for salaries for museums, cultural organizations, or many nonprofits is not new, nor is the question of the balance or share government and private donors should pay for joint projects.

At issue in Iowa is a struggle for control of a fund created by taxes on gambling, builder lobbyists who want the fund spent on building infrastructure projects (e.g., private contractors), assumptions about the costs of overhead and planning necessary for any successful project, as well as the role of government versus funding from the private sector.

In the meantime, another legislator is introducing a bill to require the museum to keep restoring historical battle flags, many dating from the Civil War. The legislator said he’ll work to require flag restoration even if the state doesn’t provide funding.—Kevin Johnson