In these austere budget times, it's tempting for state lawmakers to rob from Peter to pay Paul to minimize the impacts from a $5.3 billion budget shortfall.
Rep. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, has introduced a bill in the state Legislature to raid the fund for the planned Heritage Center in Olympia. She would divert the money to keep the doors open at state history museums in Tacoma, Spokane and Olympia.
Darneille may be well-intentioned, but the move is ill-advised as it will delay the Heritage Center project and erode the project’s funding base.
State lawmakers must not get sidetracked and jeopardize the incredible vision to recreate a National Archives Building in the nation’s capital, on a scale and in a manner fitting for Washington state.
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As envisioned, the $110 million Heritage Center would house state archives, the state library and historical displays that would serve as a starting point for the thousands of tourists and schoolchildren who arrive at the Capitol Campus each year eager to learn about Washington history.
The magnificent Capitol Campus today is devoid of a place for Washington residents and visitors to learn about state history and culture. The Heritage Center will fill that void.
The Heritage Center construction project is understandably on hold during the economic recession. But those plans and the future of the Heritage Center project itself would be put in question by Darneille’s proposal to transfer $8 million in courthouse filing fees and state assessments to be collected over the next two years to Darneille’s plan to create a new Department of Heritage, Arts and Culture.
The department would oversee the Spokane, Olympia and Tacoma museums, which Gov. Chris Gregoire has proposed mothballing to save $5 million, and the state Arts Commission, which the governor wants to eliminate.
Darneille’s new department would also have jurisdiction over the state library and archaeology, tourism, film and oral history programs.
Sen. Karen Fraser, D-Thurston County, is a solid supporter of the Heritage project and was quick to criticize Darneille’s plan.
Fraser insists – as we do – that lawmakers must resist the temptation to raid the Heritage Center fund. “To take it away and spend it in two years – I think it’s short-sighted,” Fraser said.
The money comes from fees that county auditors collect for processing legal documents and the secretary of state collects for processing business registrations.
Secretary of State Sam Reed, the architect of the Heritage Center plan, has his work cut out for him helping Fraser ward off the fund raid.
His greatest argument is the fact the Heritage Center project will not be in competition for dollars against K-12 education, higher education, social services, public safety or other programs paid for from operating revenues. In fact, Reed said, the construction project will generate $6 million in state sales tax.
The budget for the project has been trimmed from $131 million to $110 million with a corresponding shrinking of the footprint from 204,000 square feet to 142,000 square feet. The location has been shifted to the campus entrance from the bluff overlooking Capitol Lake. And all of the money for the project has been identified and the Heritage Center does not compete with other public projects in the state’s two-year construction budget.
In this budget crisis, the Arts Commission, archaeology, tourism, the three museums, film and oral history programs must take their place on the Legislature’s funding priority list as lawmakers adopt an all-cuts budget.
Their value as core public services must be weighed against all other general fund programs ranging from K-12 and higher education to public safety and social services.
Rescuing those programs by relying on a budget gimmick – raiding the Heritage Center fund – is ill-advised and jeopardizes the future of this outstanding project.