A sweeping new proposal in Olympia has left some arts and heritage advocates stunned. A bill (SB 5768) sponsored by Sens. Mary Margaret Haugen (D-Camano Island), Dan Swecker (R-Rochester), and Rosemary McAuliffe (D-Bothell) would consolidate virtually all state heritage functions into a single uber-agency called the Department of Heritage, Arts and Culture, a cabinet-level entity whose head would be appointed by the governor.
The proposal is both bold and, as might be expected, "ox-goring," as it makes major changes in the state's bureaucracy. Heritage, arts and culture programs are currently handled by many state entities. The bill is either or bold attack on Balkanization, or a major setback for heritage advocates who are less worried about Olympia's organization chart than immediate deep budget cuts — even survival.
The Senate bill creates an umbrella out of the statute structure of the state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, an independent agency that Gov. Chris Gregoire has recently proposed be merged with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
The new group would encompass a range of functions including overseeing the state library and archives, the state's historical societies and museums (excluding the Burke Museum), the arts commission, the tourism bureau, the film and video office, historic and cultural resources preservation (including capital grants), even the state's poet laureate program.
Currently, these are scattered across the org-chart, from the Secretary of State's Office to the Department of Commerce. Some have been set for elimination or reduction in Gregoire's proposed biennial budget.
"This puts a lot of similar interests with intersecting values under a single roof," said Haugen, the chief sponsor. "They all interact with each other, and all of them have overlap in their constituencies."
Haugen said the move is motivated by the desire to protect arts and heritage programs and, hopefully, to gain some efficiencies and savings. Currently, arts and heritage programs are far-flung, comparatively small, and vulnerable to the budget's broad axe.
Gregoire's severe budget earlier this year alarmed arts advocates and heritage defenders, and some of her reorganization ideas (like moving the Main Street program to DNR) were eyebrow-raisers. Arts and heritage advocates have been scrambling to make their cases, emphasizing their economic impact. But in the Great Recession, they also know that business-as-usual is not much of an option.
One plus of the bill is that it could make arts and heritage into a bigger player. As one heritage advocate says, the new department would give arts and heritage a seat "at the adult's table" in Olympia, along with major agencies and agglomerations like the Department of Social and Health Services and DNR, which are consolidations from years past. But some stewards of existing programs are not at all happy about the proposal, and some key players say they didn't see it coming.
Assistant Secretary of State Steve Excell says the Secretary of State's Office knew nothing about it until it was filed Feb. 10, and "it blew our socks off." Excell believes the reorganization, which would shift a number of staff and major responsibilities to the new agency, would wind up being more expensive and less efficient (both, for example, would need their own webmasters).
The Secretary of State already oversees the state archives, library (which Gov. Gary Locke tried to eliminate), and an oral history and publishing Legacy Project that produces biographies of major players (including Booth Gardner, and an upcoming volume on tribal leader Billy Frank). The Secretary of State is also raising funds to build a new multi-million-dollar State Heritage Center on the Capitol Campus, though state capital funding for the project is currently on hold.
Excell compared the bill to "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic." The Secretary of State's office, he says, fought to save the library and assume oversight of the archives because it believed in their purpose, and he worries that future commitment might waver as part of a larger agency.
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