Unique to “Galaxy,” Circus World Begs for Taxpayer Money

Declaring the Circus World Museum to be “Wisconsin’s crown jewel” with nothing like it perhaps in the “galaxy,” Circus World supporters told the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee last week that state taxpayers need to spend millions of dollars to support the museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin.

Circus World Foundation, a private entity that runs the Circus World Museum, and the Wisconsin Historical Society, a state agency, are battling it out over who would control millions of dollars in potential bailout money from the state. Legislators are being asked to allocate up to $3.7 million in the state budget to the ailing museum dedicated to showcasing fancy wagons and the bygone era of massive traveling circuses. The money would help pay for day-to-day operations at the museum and, under the proposal currently in the budget, would turn all museum employees into state workers, complete with pension and health insurance packages.

While the state agency and the private foundation disagree about the details of the proposed bailout, both sides believe taxpayers should pay for the museum despite internal records showing the facility to be in trouble. Although it appears that the Wisconsin Historical Society may not have been accurate about the financial health of the museum, internal Circus World documents do show declining per-visitor revenues and a long-term decline in visitors to the museum.

Steve Freese, an ex-GOP lawmaker who is the museum’s executive director, told lawmakers at a hearing at a resort in Lake Delton that all he wants is for the state to hand his museum $1 million per budget. “We believe it would be most efficient to have $500,000 each year of the biennium in GPR funds,” Freese declared.

GPR funds are raised from taxes on individual citizens and employers.

Doubtless Freese would find it “efficient” to have a taxpayer handout every year since his museum would otherwise have to raise the money through donors or some revenue stream.

A plan put forward by the Wisconsin Historical Society would send more state money to the museum, but it would put more strings on that money. Freese apparently wants $1 million with few, if any, strings attached. The Historical Society, on the other hand, wants to give $3.7 million in the state budget to the facility, make all museum employees state employees, and put the museum under its direct control.

This direct control has those who currently run the museum worried. It was Jonathan Lipp, chairman of the private foundation running the museum, who rapturously enthused, “Circus World is Wisconsin’s crown jewel. There is nothing like it in Wisconsin, perhaps in the galaxy.”

Freese, in his testimony, confirmed that the current plan in the state budget would involve $3.7 million in state money. “A takeover will gain them [the Wisconsin Historical Society] an additional $3.7 million in spending and 10 new state positions,” he said according to his prepared remarks. A public relations professional working on behalf of the Wisconsin Historical Society had previously disputed that claim in an e-mail to Media Trackers. “Only the GPR section of the budget includes public (taxpayer) funding,” the person wrote in an attempt to spin the total taxpayer responsibility in the state budget as something less. The total amount of money, from all sources and to be overseen by the state, in the proposed budget is $3.7 million.

It remains to be seen whether or not legislators will approve of any spending of taxpayer money – strings or no strings – on the Circus World Museum. The budget process is still unfolding.

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