Three days after eliminating $3 million for the National Infantry Center museum from the state budget, Gov. Sonny Perdue bristled at suggestion that it indicates a lack of support for soldiers.
Perdue reiterated that the state had met its obligation with a $5 million gift last year and anyone who says the budget cut shows a lack of military support is wrong.
"For people to suggest a lack of support of the troops is absolutely disgusting to me," Perdue said Saturday after speaking to the state Republican convention at the Columbus Civic Center.
Perdue was reacting to a statement made Thursday by Retired Maj. Gen. Jerry White, president of the National Infantry Foundation and the primary fundraiser for the project. "I don't think you can ever fulfill your obligation to the solider," White said Thursday.
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The National Infantry Foundation asked the state for $15 million in 2005.
Last year's budget contained $5 million for the museum, which is being funded by a combination of public and private money. Rep. Vance Smith, R-Pine Mountain and one of Perdue's House floor leaders, put $5 million in the House budget this year after the governor failed to include money for the project in his initial budget. The Senate put $2.5 for the museum in its budget. Budget writers finally decided on $3 million, which passed the House and Senate. Perdue, under his constitutional authority, struck it out last week.
The $5 million approved last year was a "capstone gift," and the governor made that clear to local leaders, Perdue said. But that's not what the Columbus people pushing the project say they heard.
"My clear impression - my understanding - is the $5 million was a capstone gift," Perdue said. "I am sorry for any misunderstanding that occurred."
White said Saturday the governor is mistaken. "He's remembering it all wrong," White said. "I sat in his office and asked him for $15 million. We needed the $5 million to guarantee the loan."
Construction on the $91 million facility started 16 months ago and it is scheduled to be completed in March of next year. The foundation got a $42 million construction loan to begin the project.
The loss of the $3 million will not stop or delay the project, White said.
White said museum officials met with Heidi Green, who was then on the governor's staff, and it was understood that the $5 million gift was a capstone for the loan and was not all the money the foundation was asking for. Bert Brantley, Perdue's spokesman, said he spoke to Green on Friday night.
"I don't think there was a question as to what their needs were," Brantley said. "The misunderstanding is between what their needs were and what the state commitment would be."
Sen. Seth Harp, R-Columbus, said local elected officials never heard the governor say there would be no more funding for the project. "If somebody tells me $5 million is all, I listen to that," Harp said. "The Senate leadership didn't know about the $5 million."
The governor indicated the local misunderstanding was a political game.
"There is a rule in politics that sometimes it's better to ask for forgiveness than permission," Perdue said.
White said museum supporters fought last year to keep Perdue from a veto on the $5 million appropriation.
"We pulled every string we could not to get him to veto it then," White said.
The governor said Saturday the state is "exiting the museum business." There are several state-owned and operated museums to everything from golf to music. It is not fiscally sound policy, Perdue said.
"That's the beauty of the Infantry museum," Harp said. "The state won't be in the museum business. It is a good investment because of the number of people it will bring to Columbus and tourism dollars it will bring here."
White said Perdue was invited to tour the construction project today after his convention speech. He said the governor did not accept the invitation.
"I was available to take him," White said.
Perdue pointed out that he has honored state commitments to Columbus projects before. When he took office in 2002, former Gov. Roy Barnes had committed $22 million to the expansion of the Columbus Convention & Trade Center, but there was nothing in writing.
"I had a $22 million IOU from Columbus and we paid it off," Perdue said.
The governor will be at Columbus Technical College on Tuesday for the ground breaking of a new health sciences building, which is being funded in part with $16.8 million in state financing.
U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, a Republican who represents parts of North Columbus, said he was "utterly stunned" when he heard of Perdue's veto. The federal government has contributed $30 million to the project. Like White, Westmoreland was concerned with Perdue's reason for the veto.
"How can you ever think we have met our obligations to our veterans," Westmoreland said Saturday. "You have a $22 billion budget and this was $3 million."
Westmoreland said he agrees with the governor about the museums, but ...
"This is the Infantry we are talking about," he said. "This museum is a teaching tool for the young soldiers — the men and women — that are going to fight for our freedom."