February 12, 2009 in City

Brown says MAC merger off the table

By The Spokesman-Review
 

OLYMPIA – A controversial proposal to merge the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture with its Western Washington counterpart appears to be dead.

One of the state’s most powerful lawmakers said Thursday that the Senate will not be approving the plan, which was proposed in December as a cost-cutting move by Gov. Chris Gregoire.

“The bill is on my desk. It’s not going to be introduced in the Senate,” said Sen. Lisa Brown, D-Spokane.

When asked if the bill was dead on arrival, Brown said “It is.”

The bad news: torpedoing the merger won’t necessarily shield the museum and its operations from state budget cuts. Gregoire in December proposed cutting the MAC budget by $524,000 over the next two years, which is about a 13 percent cut. And the state’s budget picture is now believed to be much bleaker.

Stopping the merger, however, would keep the MAC as a distinct organization, separate from the Tacoma-based Washington State Historical Society.

Brown’s comments came on the same day that MAC officials were in Olympia, urging skeptical House lawmakers not to allow the merger or deep budget cuts.

“Simply saying that it’s going to be hard or that it would be impossible is falling on our deaf ears,” state Rep. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, warned CEO Dennis Hession and development officer Lorna Walsh Thursday. “…We’re looking at just the most dire of budget circumstances.”

When Gregoire called for the $524,000 cut, state budget writers thought they faced a shortfall of $5.7 billion over the next two years. Now things look much worse, with some assuming a shortfall of as much as $8.5 billion.

“We need to come up with a strategy that’s different from ‘We can’t,’.” said Darneille.

“The poison control center is being cut drastically, even more than you are,” said Rep. Bill Hinkle, R-Cle Elum. “… It’s clear that we can’t keep doing what we’re doing.”

The MAC’s official name is the Eastern Washington State Historical Society, founded in 1916 and part of the state budget since 1937. By merging it with the state historical association, Gregoire’s budget staff estimates Washington could save about $1 million every two years by eliminating duplicate staff and services.

After all, both historical societies are state-funded, Darneille pointed out. Both say they have a statewide mission. But they have very similar goals, staff and operations.

“I can see,” she said, “… how one can construe that there might be some efficiencies there.”

Undoubtedly so, replied Hession. But the governor’s office never gave the two societies a chance to come up with some, he said.

“All we were presented with was ‘Here’s a merger, save a million, get it done in 6 months and then move forward,’.” he said.

Hession told legislators that the merger and deep cuts would jeopardize local donations and fundraising, which he said accounts for nearly half the MAC’s annual budget.

“Our donors are less likely to be inclined to donate money to us” if they think it might be going across the state, he said. The same is true if deep cuts force the museum to cut back public services, he said.

A $524,000 budget cut, Hession said, would mean cutting more than half a dozen staffers and hurting the museum’s educational programs and access to archives.

If anything, Hession argues, the MAC should be held up to other state-funded organizations as an example of how to blend public and private money.

“This is the kind of organization that you want to be championing,” he said.


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