January 24, 2009 in City, News

Proposed merger has history against it

The Spokesman-Review
 
The Spokesman-Review photo

Jim Camden
(Full-size photo)

The difficulty of trimming the state’s budget by nearly $6 billion may be best illustrated by a few lines in the governor’s proposal to trim a tiny fraction of the total, by reshuffling a pair of historical societies and slicing about $3 million from their museums’ budgets.

At some point in the process, budget wonks for Gov. Chris Gregoire apparently looked at the vast lineup of state boards and commissions and noticed the state has two organizations with very similar sounding names: The Washington State Historical Society and the Eastern Washington Historical Society.

One can practically hear the circuits humming in their cost-cutting brains. The gov says there’s no Eastern Washington and Western Washington; there’s just one Washington. In the interests of tearing down the Cascade Curtain, shouldn’t there be just one Washington Historical Society?

Merge the societies, turn two boards into one – maybe cut the single board down a few slots for good measure – trim the administration, some of the financial managers, IT staff, exhibit prep folks so the combined work force is about 10 smaller than the sum of the two parts.

And take 10 percent out of the historical societies’ appropriations, because all state agencies will be getting less from the general fund.

In a year when the state is threatening to cut back on health care for children, schools, law enforcement and payments to some of the most seriously disabled, it’s hard to say where support for culture and history should fall. The choices are all ugly; members of the Legislature who spent big money on campaigns for the right to make those choices may be regretting it.

Merging the societies and the museums, however, comes on top of that proposed 10 percent cut, something that’s likely to be viewed as adding insult to injury.

Glenn Kuper at the state’s Office of Financial Management presents the merger not so much as a problem as an opportunity for one of many sensible efficiencies.

“There’s a lot of what the governor called sacred cows … histories that need to be overcome,” Kuper said.

Not surprisingly, the folks at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, which the Eastern Washington Historical Society operates, don’t see it that way. Interim Chief Executive Officer Dennis Hession is worried that donors who are willing to write checks or attend fundraisers for a local museum might cut back on their largesse if things are run out of Tacoma, where the Washington Historical Society and its State History Museum are located.

Sound parochial? Sure. But that doesn’t mean Hession is wrong. The MAC gets about 45 percent of its operating funds from private sources, and if he and others concerned about this move are right, a drop in donations means the museum will have even less money to cover its costs. That could leave an even bigger hole than the 10 percent the state will cut.

Since OFM sees this as an opportunity to overcome history, it might be good to know how the state wound up with two historical societies.

From 1891 until 1925, there was just the one Washington State Historical Society. But newspaper accounts from the mid-1920s indicate Spokane residents who had their own historical society felt local pioneer and Native American history got short shrift at the state museums in Tacoma and on the University of Washington campus. They had their own museum, and in 1925 persuaded the Legislature to pass a law turning the Spokane organization into a separate, Eastern Washington Historical Society with its own board.

They weren’t able to get the Legislature and governor to give the East Side society any money until 1937, despite almost yearly complaints that the society and museums on the other side of the state got more money just about every year.

So the two societies have been separate, and competing, for more than three-fourths of a century. While it is nowhere written in stone that they must always be separate and competing, it may be asking a bit much to erase the history with a line in the budget.

Kuper says the governor would like the single society’s board to have equal representation from both sides of the state. But how long is that likely to last before some legislator from Western Washington begins asking – with just cause – “How come 22 percent of the state’s population has 50 percent of the seats on a state board?”

Skeptical people in Spokane are bound to ask, if this is simply about efficiency and not a chance to shift some authority from East to West, why not arrange the merger so things are run out of here, not Tacoma?

The Washington Historical Society and its museum have a permanent director in David Nicandri, Kuper said. Eastern Washington and the MAC are operating with an interim CEO.

True enough, Hession said. But by the time the Legislature gets all this done, the MAC could very well have a permanent director. Even if the two organizations are merged, someone will have to be in charge at the MAC.

None of this even approaches one of the most sensitive aspects of any merger involving the MAC – the trove of Native American artifacts overseen by a special Cultural Council with representatives of each of the Columbia Plateau tribes.

The governor’s budget is a starting point, not a blueprint for these and most other cuts. As the Legislature holds hearings on which cuts to make and which to reject, anyone who’s facing a cut – which is to say, everyone – is going to make the case that his or her budget should be spared.

Multiply the $3 million or so savings proposed for the historical societies and museums by about 1,900, and you’ll get to the $5.7 billion the state needs to get from the budget. The Legislature will be lucky if the complaints aren’t larger than the multiplier.

Spin Control is a weekly political column written by veteran reporter Jim Camden, who can be reached at (509) 459-5461 or jimc@spokesman.com. Spin Control is also a blog with enhancements that can be read at www.spokesmanreview.com

Get stories like this in a free daily email


Please keep it civil. Don't post comments that are obscene, defamatory, threatening, off-topic, an infringement of copyright or an invasion of privacy. Read our forum standards and community guidelines.

You must be logged in to post comments. Please log in here or click the comment box below for options.

comments powered by Disqus