Bill would save existing museums instead of planning for new one

March 24, 2011 

Supporters of the threatened state history museums in Tacoma, Spokane and Olympia have found money that might keep them running.

But tapping the funding source requires stepping on some closely guarded turf: Plans to build a Heritage Center on the Capitol campus, which were made in better economic times and have yet to get off the ground.

It’s one of many tradeoffs lawmakers are considering as they try to bridge a budget shortfall that grew last week to $5.3 billion, a process that State Historical Society Director David Nicandri noted is “virtually a zero-sum game.”

“For us to get a dollar means somebody’s got to lose one,” said Nicandri, whose agency runs the Washington State History Museum in downtown Tacoma and Olympia’s smaller State Capital Museum. “It just makes it very difficult.”

In this case, the target is $8 million in fees to be collected over the next two years and saved up for the Heritage project. Rep. Jeannie Darneille, a Tacoma Democrat and vice chairwoman of the House budget committee, calls for diverting the money to a new Department of Heritage, Arts and Culture.

The department would oversee the three museums, which Gov. Chris Gregoire has proposed mothballing to save $5 million, and the state Arts Commission, which the governor wants to eliminate. It would also have jurisdiction over the State Library and archaeology, tourism, film and oral history programs.

Darneille presented her plan Wednesday to supporters of cultural and recreational programs who meet regularly in the Legislature, the “Heritage Caucus.” They gave it a mixed reaction.

One critic is Sen. Karen Fraser, who has championed the Heritage project that would move the State Library back to the Capitol Campus from Tumwater and add archival and historical exhibits.

She said it’s unrealistic to expect the $119 million facility could be built in the next two-year budget period. But the money is being saved for a future construction project that will benefit visitors to the campus for decades, said Fraser, a Thurston County Democrat.

“To take it away and spend it in two years – I think it’s short-sighted,” she said.

The money comes from fees that county auditors collect for processing legal documents and the secretary of state collects for processing business registrations.

The Heritage funding should be transferred to protect existing heritage programs like the museums, said Rep. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim.

“If I had to prioritize, let’s keep the ones open that we have rather than building new ones,” Van De Wege said.

Darneille’s proposal to transfer the money to a new agency, formally introduced as a bill Wednesday, would also cut $12 million in general-fund money from programs in the agency, she said. But with the Heritage money replacing much of it, she said, they would keep about 80 percent of their current funding.

Secretary of State Sam Reed will oppose the plan to move the State Library out of his office to a new agency and raid the Heritage fund, acting State Librarian Rand Simmons said.

The library wants the Heritage facility built. Simmons said the library is desperate for more room to store government documents and is paying more than $1 million a year to rent its Tumwater facility.

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