OLYMPIA -- A House panel voted narrowly this morning to combine several arts and heritage programs into one "mega-agency" and provide money for the Museum of Arts and Culture from a fund set up for a planned Heritage Center in Olympia.
On a 6-5 vote, the House State Government and Tribal Affairs Committee approved HB 2033, a bill that creates a Department of Heritage, Arts and Culture from an array of existing programs. It would place two state historical societies in the new department, as well as the MAC and the State History Museum in Tacoma, as well as the Heritage Center and a fund created from a special fee on documents filed with county auditors.
Gov. Chris Gregoire's budget proposes cutting funding for those two museums so significantly that the two facilities will be closed to the public and only have enough staff to maintain their collections. The House Democrats' budget proposal keeps the museums open by tapping the Heritage Center fund.
Rep. Jeannie Darnielle, D-Tacoma, said the bill represented one of the tough choices facing the Legislature: "We have to choose between our existing agencies and museums or look to something new." It would change the Heritage Center fund to a heritage fund that maintains existing museums and arts programs across the state.
Republicans on the panel objected. "We're creating a new agency when reforms should be going the other direction," Rep. Gary Alexander, R-Olympia said. When the House GOP introduces its alternative budget later today, it will propose a way to keep the Spokane and Tacoma museums open without tapping the Heritage Center money, he added.
One Democrat objected, too. Rep. Mark Miloscia, D-Federal, said the bill merely rearranges the agencies rather than focusing on processes and people. "Setting up a new department just doesn't send the right message to the public," he said.
Employees of the new department would remain members of their current collective bargaining units and keep their contracts. Republicans lost on an amendment that would have cancelled the current agreements and required what Rep. David Taylor, R-Moxee, called "a clean look at those contracts."
The committee also voted to cancel the scheduled 2012 presidential primary as a way of saving money next year.
The presidential primary was mandated by voters in a 1989 initiative, but has never been used by either party as the sole method of selecting the state's presidential delegates. Cancelling the primary and allowing the parties to select their delegates through the caucus process -- which Democrats use for all of their delegates and Republicans have used for at least half their delegates, ever since the initiative took effect -- would save the state an estimated $10 million.
"In this particular year, in this particular situation, $10 million goes a long way toward education and health care," Rep. Sherry Appleton, D-Poulsbo said. HB 1324 passed on a 9-2 vote.
The committee also approved HB 2028, a plan to combine the Executive Ethics Commission with the state Public Disclosure Commission in what most Democrats on the committee described as a cost-saving move. Republican committee members, and Miloscia, said they doubted there would be savings, and could result in a loss of something more valuable -- government credibility.
"I feel like state government has a credibility gamp with our performance, with the way we handle money and the way we govern," Miloscia said. "If we ask them to give us more taxes, we have to show them we're the most ethical government on the planet."
Democrats also approved HB 2035, a plan to look for savings in the state printing operations. Republicans tried unsuccessfully to abolish the state printing office, arguing that those jobs could be handled better and more cheaply by private businesses.