OLYMPIA – Keeping Spokane’s Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture open with funding from a new “mega-agency” was criticized Thursday by state officials, librarians, Native American tribes and advocates for the blind.
Almost all those critics said they were concerned about proposals for sharp cuts in art, culture and heritage programs. Consolidating small but efficient programs into one larger and possibly less-efficient department was not the answer, they told the House State Government Committee during a packed early-morning hearing.
Rep. Jeannie Darnielle, D-Tacoma, sponsor of HB 2033, told the crowd that desperate budget times call for unusual measures: “There are such significant cuts that there are people on this dais who don’t know why we even keep the arts.”
The bill would combine state agencies that oversee archaeology, 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 MAC 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 give the new agency control of money being raised by fees on documents filed at county auditors’ offices. Funding the museums, however, the state would delay, or possibly eliminate, the planned state Heritage Center in Olympia.
Secretary of State Sam 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. The plan shifts money around but doesn’t guarantee efficiency, he said: “It is a bad idea.”
Members of the state’s blind community, who wanted to protect the state’s Braille and talking-book program, also opposed the bill. “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 about putting the Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, which has regulatory authority over tribal archaeological sites, into the arts agency.
Some members of the arts community were supportive, as were representatives of Spokane and Tacoma. Al Aldrich, lobbyist for the city of Spokane, said the city supports the proposal: “it may not 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 today on whether to send the bill to the ways and means panel. 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.