The budget axe slices heritage

Olympia took its whacks at arts and heritage programs, but with the chips still falling, there are victories too. Big questions loom about future funding for many programs and institutions. 

Crosscut archive image.

The Garfield County Courthouse in Pomeroy, Wash. (USDA)

Olympia took its whacks at arts and heritage programs, but with the chips still falling, there are victories too. Big questions loom about future funding for many programs and institutions. 

Like a budgetary Paul Bunyan, the state legislature swung the broad axe. In the area of heritage and culture, the blade did major damage, but not as much as it would have had the legislature approved Gov. Christine Gregoire's draconian suggestions which included closing the state's historical museums, eliminating the state arts commission, and canceling all capital grants for state heritage projects. 

There were even a few major wins, such as securing a revenue stream for King County arts and heritage funding. For most, sheer survival constituted a victory.

Still, if the axe didn't clear-cut the forest, it felled a lot of timber and left some programs living on a biennium of borrowed time and leaving big questions about long-term funding unanswered. Culture and heritage efforts survived for now, but is the state's commitment sustainable?

With the governor's line-item veto pen still pending, here's a rundown of some of the good and bad news.

Good news: The state's two major history museums, the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma and the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture (MAC) in Spokane, will remain open.

Bad news: The Tacoma museum will close one additional day per week (open days will be Wed-Sun), and must reduce programs and staff. The Washington State Historical Society took a $700,000 cut over the last biennium and a number of programs were also slashed. Director Dave Nicandri says "the Pacific Northwest history conference is itself 'history.'" 

The MAC took a 4.5 percent budget cut from where they ended last biennium (which also featured big cuts, so the total cut was really about 12 percent). Director Ron Rector says they have bigger worries ahead. An expected blockbuster Leonardo Da Vinci exhibit is coming this summer and should be a revenue boon and help the MAC make its budget for next year. But Rector says they don't know how they'll replace those revenues for the second year of the biennium. They'll certainly have to lay off staff to compensate.

Good news: The Washington State Arts Commission lives on a reduced budget, but it was not eliminated as the governor proposed.

Good News: King County's 4Culture will be funded, continuing to tap county hotel tax revenues, and healthy long-term funding is now assured.

Bad News: The Capital Heritage Grant program identified $10 million in grants for the biennium for local projects including improvements to historical properties and museums. The vast majority of that funding was not forthcoming, with only nine out of 29 getting the go-ahead. The total was $1.168 million in matching grants. A few projects received funding elsewhere in the budget. 

Good News: Heritage grant winners include $610,000 for City of Vancouver's historic Officer's Row, $60,000 for the Fort Nisqually Granary, $30,000 for the Blue Mt. Heritage Society, $118,000 for the schooner Martha Washington Foundation, and $25,000 for the La Conner Quilt and Textile Museum, among others.

Good News: There were some other capital grants for cultural heritage groups in the Dept. of Commerce "Building for Arts" budget. These included $70,000 for Town Hall Seattle, $250,000 for the Colville Tribal Museum, $169,000 for the Grays Harbor Historic Seaport, $518,000 for the Bainbridge Art Museum.

Good News: $750,000 was found for the fund that helps to rehabilitate landmark county court houses and $200,000 was tagged for the incredibly popular "Barn Again" program that preserves heritage barns. Both funds were cut but avoided being zeroed out.

Bad news: The state's tourism office was zeroed out. A private industry alliance is forming to try and fill the gap.

Good News: The State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation was not eliminated as an independent agency and merged with the Department of Natural Resources, a Gregoire proposal that didn't make much sense. Also, under DNR, the state Board on Geographic Names, previously eliminated by the legislature, has been revived in altered form.

Bad News: The state library is valuable resource has been battered by budgeteers. Since the turn of the 21st century, staff has been cut nearly in half (from 158 in '01 equivalents to 76), and overall funding reduced by nearly 40 percent. For this budget cycle, the full impact of the new budget is still being calculated, but the downward trend continues with an overall library budget cut of at least and additional $675,000.

Good and Bad News: The state has been accumulating fees in a Heritage Center Fund to build a new complex in Olympia to house the state library, new archive storage space, plus an exhibit space and visitor's center. The proposed facility, estimated at up to $100 million, has been on hold. Over the next two years, the approximately $13 million in the fund will be raided by the legislature to provide operating funds for current heritage programs. The Secretary of State's Office breaks it down this way: Approximately $1 million for the state library, $2.5 million for Dept. of Archaeology, $2.2 million to fund the Arts Commission, $4.3 million for the State Historical Society and Museum, and $2.9 million for the Eastern Washington Historical Society. The good news is that important heritage and culture functions get funded for the next two years. But...

The bad news is that it leaves a major question: What happens in two years? The raid not only effectively stops dead, for now, the planned Heritage Center, but it also leaves a huge funding gap down the road for the agencies it's bailing out now. In two years, the Fund would see some replenishment, but it took six years to collect the $13 million, according to Assistant Secretary of State Steve Excell. In other words, there'll only be a fraction as much accumulating in the Fund next biennium. Excell calls the budget gambit "short-sighted and unsustainable."

True that. You cannot maintain libraries, museums, and archives with make-shift funding because, by their very nature, they need to be secure and long-term. Even if times are improved in a couple of years, getting re-funded by the state's general fund could pose significant challenges due to competition from other agencies and the demands of funding programs like health care. Some believe the legislature is sending a clear message: heritage groups are being given a two-year reprieve to find alternative means of support. It will increase pressure to find more private funding for some programs, such as the state museums which already raise significant private money to keep running.

Secretary of State Sam Reed said he was "deeply disappointed" in losing the Heritage Center funds, and also by having to eliminate the state's Productivity Board which looks at ways the state can do things more efficiently. Reed says the board's efforts have already saved the state $60 million. (Observational aside: What does it say about our budgetary times that eliminating a way to save money is a way to save money?)

Good News: Gregoire budgeted money for the demolition of the General Administration Building on the Capitol campus to help clear the way for the future Heritage Center. However, the building is on the National Register, so there was an apparent contradiction in destroying a landmark to put up a new heritage archive. The budget as passed eliminated the GA demolition (saving over $6 million) and includes $150,000 to study the re-use of the building by the state library, archives, and State Patrol. The Secretary of State's office argues that it will be more expensive to adapt the building than build a new one. But with money for the Heritage Center being used up elsewhere, at least an historic mid-century modern structure has received a temporary pardon.

Goods and Bad News: One thing missing from the final budget was a major re-organization (proposed) to create one big Arts and Heritage agency. The upside was that consolidation might save money and that putting functions under one umbrella could give arts and heritage more clout. The arguments against are that it wouldn't really save money, could hurt independent fundraising efforts by groups that get local support for being quasi-independent of the state rather than part of a larger bureaucracy (like the state historical societies), and that the resulting agency would become the heritage equivalent of the Department of Social and Health Services, a bureaucratic Frankenstein's monster.

Gregoire's budget did give heritage and culture groups something to rally against, and arts and heritage advocates and both houses of the legislature deserve enormous credit for protecting the heritage forest from an unprecedented assault in difficult budgetary times. 

But having made their case, the next step will be to strengthen the public's will to see libraries, museums, heritage preservation, and the maintaining of public records and expanding access to archives and other historical resources as part of the core services of state government, not to mention the foundation of a civilized society.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.