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WA Lege Day 81: Plan to save MAC draws heavy opposition

OLYMPIA -- Hearings started early today, with the House State Government and Tribal Affairs Committee holding a packed-room session on the plan to save museums in Spokane and Tacoma by creating a mega-agency for arts and culture.

Elswewhere in the Legislature, the Senate has a long list of bills -- mostly uncontroversial -- queued up for a vote. The House Ways and Means Committees has a list of bills that it must decide whether to send to the floor, and that list has some more controversial subjects, like medical marijuana rules, a health benefit exchange and changes to the GET program.

In the early morning State Government Committee hearing, HB 2033 was heavily criticized, with opponents who included state librarians, organizations ,that represent the blind and Secretary of State Sam Reed, as the wrong solution for a recognizable problem of not enough state funding for arts and culture programs.

The bill would combine state agencies that oversee archeology, historic preservation, heritage, the historical societies, the state library and others into a single Department of Arts and Culture. Among them would be the Eastern Washington State Historical Society, which operates the Museum of Arts and Culture in Spokane, and the  Washington State Historical Society, which operates the State History Museum in Tacoma. Both museums lose most of their state funding in the budget proposed by Gov. Chris Gregoire.

To come up with money to keep the museums open, as well as other arts and culture programs also facing major cuts, the proposal would take money currently being raised by fees on documents filed at county auditors offices, and put it under the control of the new mega agency. By funding the museums, however, the state would delay, or possibly eliminate, the planned state Heritage Center in Olympia.

Rep. Jeannie Darnielle, D-Tacoma, the bill's sponsor, looked out over the packed crowd and admitted it was tough to be in front of "an audience of people who hate you." But desperate budget times call for unusual measures, she said.

"There are such significatn cuts that there are people on this dias who don't know why we even keep the arts," Darnielle said.

Reed, whose office would lose the state library and the planned Heritage Center in Olympia, agreed proposed budget cuts spell trouble for arts and culture programs. But Darnielle's plan shifts money around and creates a mega-agency: "It is a bad idea."

The plan was also criticized by members of the state's blind community, who wanted to protect the state's Braille and talking book program. "With all due respect, this legislation reeks of spin," said Mike Freeman of the state chapter of the National Federation of the Blind.

Librarians opposed folding the state library into a mega agency. Tribal representatives had concerns of putting the Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation, which has regulatory authority over tribal archeological sites, into the arts agency.

Some members of the arts community were supportive, as were representatives of Spokane and Tacoma, which would have major museums closed to the public under the governor's spending plan.

Al Aldrich, lobbyist for the city of Spokane, said the city supports the proposal: "it may be the perfect answer...but it is a good answer. Shutting down the MAC is not a good answer."

The committee is scheduled to vote on whether to move the proposal to the Ways and Means panel on Friday. Even if it passes the House, however, the bill may founder in the Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, has already said the Senate is trying to find a way to fund the MAC and the State History Museum in Tacoma through the general operating fund budget and does not support tapping the money set aside for the Heritage Center.

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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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