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State lawmakers reject Circus World plan

By Jessica Arp, jarp@wisctv.com
Published On: Apr 30 2013 06:20:23 PM CDT
Updated On: Apr 30 2013 10:05:40 PM CDT

MADISON, Wis. -

State lawmakers have rejected a suggested state takeover of Circus World Museum, but they also aren't giving the historical site any more money.

The legislature's budget-writing committee was considering a provision in Gov. Scott Walker's budget Tuesday that would have handed control of the museum from a private foundation to the State Historical Society, along with nearly $2.5 million and 10 state positions. Instead, lawmakers voted unanimously to remove the provision, allowing the foundation to continue to raise money on its own to fund operations at the site.

"The governor felt this proposal was the best option for sustaining the historic site and its collection, while maintaining accountability over the proposed state investment," said Walker's spokesperson, Tom Evenson, in an email to WISC-TV.

"I don't believe there is a level of comfort in either caucus with continuing to make investments in something that even the organization themselves says is questionable," said Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette and co-chair of the finance committee. "If they're going to make it, they have to make it on their own."

Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, proposed an alternative that would have allowed the foundation to stay in control, but give the museum a half a million dollars in funding and loans if they could raise that much money themselves.

"I think it is an important site to have in the state of Wisconsin," said Olsen. "We spend money on history in this state, and this is just one site we've been lucky enough for years we haven't had to, but now we do."

Other lawmakers on the committee disagreed, and voted down that motion 4-12.

"I think there's a legitimate question to be had about who is running the place and who can do that better, but why either option requires the state to hand over millions of dollars to buy a circus seems ill-timed at best," said Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine.

In the end, lawmakers voted 16-0 to remove the provision entirely from the budget. Circus World officials said they will find other ways to make the show go on.

"It wasn't exactly what we were planning as the outcome," said Steve Freese, executive director of Circus World Museum. "It goes back to what our board was saying, that we need to work with the Historical Society to develop a plan and take it to the administration so we will be able to come together on this."

Freese said the museum needs more flexibility to keep non-historical items like vehicles or maintenance equipment to serve as collateral for loans to get through the off-season, rather than handing over ownership of all assets as required by state law.

He said he will ask his board and the Historical Society board to begin discussions on that in the next two weeks.

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