Correction: Wisconsin Budget-Circus World story


MADISON, Wis. (AP) — In a story April 30 about the Circus World Museum's finances, The Associated Press reported erroneously that a Legislative Fiscal Bureau analysis found the museum's 2013 operating budget assumes expenses will outpace revenues by $975,000. The budget assumes expenses will outpace revenues by $97,500.

A corrected version of the story is below:

Wis. committee nixes state control of Circus World

Wisconsin budget committee nixes Walker's plan for state control of Circus World Museum


Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Legislature's finance committee on Tuesday overwhelmingly rejected Republican Gov. Scott Walker's plan to let the state Historical Society take over Baraboo's struggling Circus World Museum, saying the site will have to find other ways to survive.

The Republican-controlled committee's co-chairs, Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, and Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, said the state faces larger problems and lawmakers must be prudent about spending tax dollars.

"Circus World will have to make it on its own," Nygren told reporters.

The museum stands on what was once the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus's winter grounds in Baraboo, a city of 12,000 people about 50 miles northwest of Madison. The museum includes original buildings from the winter camp, an extensive collection of circus artifacts, including more than 200 circus wagons, posters and ads as well as a hippodrome performance center.

The Historical Society owns the museum but a private foundation has run it for 53 years through a lease and management contract. The museum's revenue has been dwindling over the last decade due largely to declining attendance.

According to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, an estimated 71,076 people visited the site last year, down more than 50 percent from 143,300 in 2000. The museum's 2013 budget assumes expenses will outpace revenues by $97,500.

In January the foundation's board informed the society that the panel planned to ask the governor and the Legislature for additional state funding. Walker responded by inserting a provision in his 2013-15 executive budget calling for the society to take over the museum's operations and setting out $2.4 million, including $1.2 million in tax dollars, to fund 10 state positions at the museum.

The foundation's executive director, Steve Freese, said after Tuesday's hearing the proposal caught the foundation completely off-guard. A turf war has since erupted. Takeover opponents argue the museum should remain in the hands of a local-operated private enterprise and current museum workers might lose their jobs under Walker's plan. Supporters counter that the society could provide more stable funding and circus history is part of Wisconsin's story, not just Baraboo's.

The Republican-controlled fiance committee began revising Walker's budget last week as it prepares to forward the spending plan to the full Legislature, a process that will take several weeks. Committee members from both parties balked at the museum proposal during a meeting Tuesday, saying the state has to spend its money carefully.

"I had to pause when we first got wind of this," Rep. Cory Mason, R-Racine, said. "I'm somewhat surprised at how much time and energy the committee has spent debating a circus."

Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, proposed creating a low-interest loan program for the museum as well as $300,000 annual grant if the foundation could show it raised $450,000 in the previous year. He argued the state commits money to other historical sites and should do the same for the museum.

"We spend money on history in this state," Olsen said. "This is just one site where we've been lucky enough for years where we haven't had to. Now we do."

The committee voted Olsen's idea down 12-5, with three Republicans and two Democrats opposed. The panel then voted 16-0 to wipe out the budget provision all together.

A Walker spokesman didn't immediately return a message.

Freese said after the vote he hopes to sit down with society officials and try to come up with a funding plan. He'd like the society to allow the foundation to own more assets, which the foundation could then use as collateral to set up credit lines.

He also hopes the museum's network of donors will help and said he's looking into renting more museum artifacts to movie companies. The museum rented out 15 circus wagons in 2010 to a 20th Century Fox subsidiary for "Water for Elephants," generating $352,000.

Ellsworth Brown, the historical society's director, responded to a message seeking comment about the committee's actions with a statement saying the society wants to make sure all the state's historical sites remain viable family destinations.

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