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Thu., March 24, 2011, 4:45 p.m.

WA Lege Day 74: Plan to keep MAC open surfaces

OLYMPIA -- A proposal that would keep the Museum of Arts and Culture in Spokane and the State History Museum in Tacoma open, by taking money from a fund to build a Heritage Center in Olympia, was introduced today in the House.

Supported by Spokane Reps. Andy Billig, Kevin Parker and Timm Ormsby, as well as members from the Tacoma area and even Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, the plan also creates a state Department of Heritage, Arts and Culture, which would oversee the three facilities.

"Rather than saving for a new museum, we're going to save two excellent museums we already have," Billig said Thursday. "Ideally we would do it all, but we're not in ideal conditions."

Secretary of State Sam Reed is not a fan. "It's like killing one institution to save two others." Finding money for the two museums is "vitally important" but taking money for the Heritage Center -- which would primarily be a home for the state archives and state library, and with display space but not a full-blown museum -- is the wrong way to do it, he said....

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Gov. Chris Gregoire's budget proposal for the upcoming biennium includes only bare bones funding for the MAC, operated by the Eastern Washington Historical Society, and the Tacoma museum, operated by the separate Washington State Historical Society. It's enough to keep the  heat on so the pipes don't freeze, security for the collections and minimal staff, but not have the museums open to the public.

“The MAC is much more than a museum," Billig said. "It hosts educational programs and community events, houses regional archives and library materials, and is the heart of the Browne’s Addition neighborhood."

But if the MAC is more than a museum, the center is more of a multipurpose structure for institutions that predate the Spokane and Tacoma facilities. Reed said the state library dates to 1854 and the archives go back to territorial days. They're housed in buildings that are old, too small and expensive to operate.

Legislators were looking for money for the two museums in the state's general operating budget, but that budget's bleak outlook got worse last week with another projected drop in tax revenue. HB 2033, introduced today, is an effort to take the two museums completely out of the general operating budget and tap a special fund set up for the Heritage Center from fees on public records filed with county auditors. Plans for construction have been put on hold because of the economic downturn, but the fees are being placed in a special fund.

"Legally, that may not be a problem, but politically and ethically, yes it is," Reed said about the use of the Heritage Center fund for other facilities. The House of Representatives has tried to tap the center's funding since it was set up in 2007, but the Senate has always said no, he added.

The state needs to come up with a way to keep the Spokane and Tacoma museums open, he said, but "this is a terrible plan."

Billig said the establishment of a new department would consolidate many different programs under one boss. Reed said it would create an extra layer of bureaucracy the MAC and the Tacoma museum don't need.

A hearing on the bill is scheduled for 8 a.m. March 31 in the House State Government and Tribal Affairs Committee. Spokane legislators are hoping supporters of the MAC can come to the hearing, despite the short notice and the early hour. Reed says he intends to be there, to explain why he thinks this is a bad idea.

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Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981. He is currently the political reporter and state government reporter in the newspaper's Olympia bureau office.

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