In an interview with Wisconsin Right Now, a Republican legislator referred to concerns about the Streets of Old Milwaukee exhibit as “social media drama.”
Wisconsin legislators, including four Republicans, released $40 million in taxpayer dollars to the embattled Milwaukee Public Museum on Feb. 3, 2023, with NO debate in a 45-second meeting segment, even though serious questions remain about museum officials’ lack of transparency, shifting numbers, misleading statements and unexplained race and equity updates, Wisconsin Right Now has learned.
Museum officials suddenly went back to the state to seek release of the $40 million in the midst of Wisconsin Right Now’s investigative journalism into the new museum. In fact, they sent a letter to the state seeking the release of the taxpayer dollars only four days after WRN filed its first open records request.
The museum was able to seek the release of the funds because museum officials claim they have raised $85 million in non-state funding, which was the key condition that state legislators set in 2021 when they first approved the money.
This seems contrary to what a key legislator told us. State Rep. Mark Born, the Republican who first pushed the Legislature to pass the museum funding in 2021, told WRN that the museum is not supposed to get the state money unless there are “shovels in the ground.” However, groundbreaking is not planned until December 2023, and the museum is about $107 million short in the private donations it needs.
However, the museum’s private donation numbers jumped by at least $8 million in eight days based on a published report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, allowing them to suddenly pass the threshold to get the state grant money, which they won’t explain to WRN. They told a Republican legislator, Andre Jacque, that the Journal Sentinel was using outdated information.
“I’m beside myself that the state of Wisconsin – to include Republican legislators – would choose to abdicate any semblance of responsible oversight and hand over $40 million in taxpayer money to fund a new museum project that has in no way been justified,” former gubernatorial candidate Kevin Nicholson told WRN.
“The numbers that have been supplied by Milwaukee Public Museum leadership regarding the renovation of the current museum building and the cost of the proposed new building, are inaccurate and continue to shift by millions of dollars,” Nicholson said.
He added: “Further, there is an obvious agenda on the part of museum leadership to do away with accurate representations of human history, in order to fit with their preferred woke political narratives in a new building. If Republican legislators aren’t connected enough with reality to hold off on funding a $240 million-plus exercise in rewriting history, and subverting an institution visited and enjoyed by over 500,000 Wisconsinites every year, when will they start to care? This type of ineptitude, and abdication of leadership, is what has led to political indoctrination permeating our public school curriculum.”
Nicholson’s non-profit, No Better Friend Corp., gave Wisconsin Right Now a grant to investigate the new $240 million museum project.
“The plan to build a new museum has been vetted and supported at both the County and State levels to the collective tune of $85 million and has been embraced by the donor community with more than $40 million in private funding,” the museum told WRN in a statement.
“After extensive research and financial analysis, there is agreement at the state and county level that a new museum home is the best path forward, and we are excited to bring the community along on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shape our future by preserving and protecting our past.”
As Wisconsin Right Now previously reported, museum officials have estimated that the current museum needs $80-90 million in racial and equity updates they won’t explain; they won’t say which exhibits the museum intends to eliminate or what will happen to the historic artwork inside the building; they misleadingly stated that the county would save money through the new museum project and that major traveling exhibits wouldn’t be possible without accreditation; they have refused to say what will happen to iconic exhibits like the Streets of Old Milwaukee and the European Village; their numbers for so-called “deferred maintenance” costs have ballooned and shifted and appear to be projections 20 years into the future.
State lawmakers asked no questions about any of these things when they released the money.
According to archival video of the Feb. 3 Building Commission meeting provided via Wisconsin Eye, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers called the meeting of the general State Building Commission to order, which he chairs.
Four Republicans – state Sens. Andre Jacque and Joan Ballweg and Reps. Robert Wittke and Rob Swearingen – voted to release the $40 million, along with Democrat Sen. Robert Wirch and Rep. Jill Billings, and citizen member Summer Strand. Jacque seconded the motion to approve the $40 million.
We asked Rep. Mark Born the following questions, he responded:
WRN: Does this concern you? / Do you think the funds should have been released?
Rep. Born: “There are still several steps that must happen following the Building Commission vote before the funding is released, including contractual processes and steps to back the bond that happen between DOA and the grant recipient.”
WRN: Is there any mechanism that would allow you to recall the funds?
Rep. Born: “The funding has not been released yet, but if contracts are signed and the bond is appropriately backed and a grant is made, the state is protected by retaining an ownership interest equal to the grant amount if the space is not used as a museum of nature and culture.”
WRN: Why did you author the motion that included the funding for the museum project in the first place?
Rep. Born: “It is routine for the Co-Chairs of the Joint Committee on Finance to author omnibus motions for the majority party, as was the case for this motion that included many other Building Program items.”
They asked no questions. There was no debate.
We reached out to Jacque and Ballweg for comment. We asked Jacque’s office whether it was possible to seek a reversal of the grant money release at this stage and whether he would do so. We also asked why he voted for the project.
At the committee level, Jacque and Ballweg joined Wirch and Strand in also voting to release the grant money. None of the legislators asked a single question at that meeting either, Wisconsin Right Now confirmed.
We never heard back from Senator Ballweg.
Jacque called us back and pointed out that he was among the legislators who initially voted the project down; it failed the first time around on a 4-4 vote in 2021. When it came back around the second time, it passed the Legislature that year with several conditions, including obtaining the $85 million in non-state money to get the grant released. Jacque did not have an explanation for why the project passed after first being rejected.
As for the recent vote to release the grant dollars, Jacque said it would “certainly be outside expectations based on what was agreed upon” for the Building Commission to refuse to release the money at this stage. “It was a certification that they (the museum) met the criteria established” by the earlier legislative approval, said Jacque.
Asked if he was concerned about the questions that we’ve raised, Jacque said he was just learning about them. “I am still gathering information,” he said, three weeks after the vote to release the taxpayer dollars.
On Feb. 23, 2023, R.J. Binau, director of the Bureau of Capital Budget and Construction Administration, told Jacque that museum officials say they have $40.9 million in private funding raised and “planned giving of an additional $10 million.”
In addition, they have raised $45 million from Milwaukee County taxpayers, bringing them over the $85 million in non-state revenue needed to qualify for the release of the state taxpayer dollars.
Wisconsin Right Now asked the museum for a detailed list of each donation with dates. We have not received a response. We also asked Binau for any additional documents he received from museum officials.
Jacque provided us with a letter from museum officials to the state. It’s dated Jan. 17, 2023, the same day that Wisconsin Right Now sent an open records request to the museum, and four days after our first open records request. That letter shows museum officials stated they had raised the money, but it does not provide any documentation.
This continues a pattern; when the Milwaukee County Board approved another $45 million in taxpayer dollars for the project, there was little debate and no public input, although there was a more robust discussion at the committee level. This combined with a non-questioning media means the museum has managed to secure millions of dollars in public funds without answering tough questions, despite stripping the word “public” out of its name.
The state money was initially approved by the Legislature in 2021 on a motion from Born. “We also have good investments in history,” he told lawmakers, stressing the “importance of that project.” The motion says that the Department of Administration would review the plans. Read the motion here: motion-84
In an interview with Wisconsin Right Now, Born referred to concerns about the Streets of Old Milwaukee exhibit as “social media drama.”
Born said the state Department of Administration, also helmed by Evers, administers the building contracts. He said the museum project needed a “50-50 match” of non-state revenue to get the state money. “In this case, they’ve got way more than 50% that they’re matching,” he said.
Actually, although the state grant documents say the state was told construction of the building will cost only $125 million, the entire project is estimated to really cost $240 million. We previously reported that the museum is about $107 million short in the private donations they say they need.
Here’s a chart presented to the Wisconsin Building Commission. Museum officials say the overall project’s cost has now ballooned to $240 million because that figure includes things like growing the endowment and the cost of moving collections.
Born said museum officials said they planned to showcase more artifacts in the new museum and have “less (of) the storytelling things,” like the Streets of Old Milwaukee.
The state does not appear to have a term sheet that placed many additional conditions on getting the money, which we checked with the Legislative Reference Bureau and Jacque’s office. The state would retain ownership interest in the portion of the building equal to its grant.
“This project will construct a new museum facility to be located on the northeast corner of Sixth and McKinley Streets in Milwaukee, WI. The approximately 200,000 SF facility will house the Wisconsin Museum of Nature and Culture,” the Feb. 3 state document says.
Changes to the Project
When the Republican-controlled Legislature approved the $40 million in taxpayer funding in 2021, they slashed the governor’s proposed $170 million price tag for the overall project to $125 million.
In return, they lowered the amount the museum needed to raise from non-state sources from $130 million to $85 million.
By lowering the overall cost of the museum, legislators made it easier for the museum to come up with the donations needed to trigger the $40 million grant release even though the reality is that the overall $240 million project cost is much higher than that.
When the state approved the funding, the governor’s request gave the total museum amount as $170 million. The state document lists a “$105 million grantee match.”
“Modify the provision to enumerate a $125,000,000 museum with $40,000,000 of GPR-supported borrowing and $85,000,000 from non-state revenue sources,” state documents say.
Back in 2015, a consultant’s report said the cost of staying in the current museum would be only $131 million.