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Legislators seeking money for the MAC

OLYMPIA – A proposal to keep museums in Spokane and Tacoma open by tapping a savings account for a new Heritage Center in Olympia was introduced Thursday in the Washington House of Representatives.

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 would create a state Department of Heritage, Arts and Culture to oversee the three facilities.

Gov. Chris Gregoire’s budget proposal for the upcoming biennium includes only bare-bones funding for the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture in Spokane and the State History Museum in Tacoma. It’s enough to keep the heat on so the pipes don’t freeze and provide security for the collections and minimal staff, but not have the museums open to the public.

“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.”

Billig called the MAC “much more than a museum,” saying it “hosts educational programs and community events, houses regional archives and library materials, and is the heart of the Browne’s Addition neighborhood.”

Secretary of State Sam Reed is not a fan of the proposal. “It’s like killing one institution to save two others,” he said.

Finding money for the two museums is “vitally important” but taking it from Heritage Center – which would house the state archives and state library, and have display space but not a full-blown museum – is the wrong way to do it, he said.

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 Spokane and Tacoma 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 would 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. Construction of the center is on hold because of the economic downturn, but the fees are being held in a special fund that has about $12 million.

“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 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. on 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.

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