State History Programs in Crisis

David Darlington, April 2003

It is no secret that many states in this country are facing financial difficulties. Deteriorating tax bases, skyrocketing healthcare costs, and a collapse in capital gains and corporate tax revenues have left many states in a severe budget crunch. According to the National Governors Association (NGA), the current combined budget shortfall for all 50 states is approximately $30 billion for the remainder of fiscal 2003 and $82 billion for fiscal 2004.1

This state fiscal crisis has hit state history programs and archives especially hard. Across the nation, from Washington to Georgia, and Arizona to Maine, state archives, historical societies, and libraries with invaluable historical resources are struggling to cope with cuts and proposed reductions that threaten to severely limit–and in some cases, completely eliminate–programs and services.

Those heading the different historical organizations realize that they too are subject to the fiscal discipline being required of other state agencies, but they are anxious, nevertheless, because the budget reductions will adversely affect the services they provide to the public in general and historians in particular, and have long-lasting consequences–on heritage preservation programs or tourism, for example. As Nina Archabal, director of the Minnesota Historical Society, said, "The society will do its part to help during this difficult economic period. But it pains us greatly to reduce our service to Minnesotans. We take very seriously our responsibilities as an educational institution, steward of our state's history, employer, and economic driver for communities."

Concerned by the long-term impact of the budget crises upon history programs in different states, the AHA has already begun to take action. Responding, for instance, to proposed cuts in New Jersey that seriously threaten history and archives programs there (including the proposed elimination of the New Jersey Historical Commission and its operating grants program), the AHA–along with the Organization of American Historians and the Community College Humanities Association–addressed a letter to Governor Jim McGreevey to express concern.2 In the letter, the executive directors of the three organizations declared, "the efforts to balance the budget by dismantling a nationally recognized cultural resource are shortsighted and in the long run will diminish New Jersey's revenues from cultural tourism." It urged the governor to look for options other than eliminating the $4.2 million commission in his effort to balance the state's budget.3

To get a better picture of the scope and magnitude of the threat facing state history, Perspectives queried state historical societies, archive programs, and humanities councils, asking them to describe the fiscal situation in their state and its potential impact upon their programs.4

Of the 30 organizations that responded, 13 indicated that they were expecting budget cutbacks of varying degrees. Only three historical agencies receiving state funds indicated that they did not expect a budget cut for fiscal 2004, but two of those had already experienced cutbacks in fiscal 2003. Five privately funded organizations said that they did not receive any state funds, and although it may seem that such organizations are in a better position–as one representative stated, "at these times I thank God that we are privately funded"–it is important to note that many privately funded organizations are suffering as well. One respondent noted, for instance, that cultural institutions in her state were facing "the perfect storm"–cutbacks in state funding, falling endowment returns, and a decline in corporate, individual, and foundation giving.

Situation Dire in Several States

One of the states hit hard in fiscal 2003 was Massachusetts, where the budget of the Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC), the primary source of operating support for cultural institutions including the state's many history museums and historical societies, was cut by 62 percent (from $19.1 million in fiscal 2002 to $7.3 million in fiscal 2003). The budget for the Massachusetts Historical Commission was also slashed in fiscal 2003. The loss of funding resulted in cuts in fundraising and outreach efforts, cultural and youth programming, fewer grants for community arts projects, and the loss of 72.5 full-time jobs in 46 cultural organizations (the MCC has full details on their web site at http://www.massculturalcouncil.org/news/surveyresults.html). Fortunately, Massachusetts is one of the three states that indicated that the governor has proposed no further reductions for fiscal 2004, though it remains to be seen whether the state legislature will impose a cut.

Many states are facing crises for fiscal 2004 similar to the one Massachusetts faced in fiscal 2003, and the result for history programs and archives will likely be similar. History programs in Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Washington, and Wisconsin indicated that they expect budget reductions for fiscal 2004. In Washington, both the Washington State Historical Society (Tacoma) and the Eastern Washington State Historical Society expect a cut of approximately 14 percent. The Washington State Library will receive a cut of about 60 percent, causing it to virtually cease to exist as a public agency. Historical agencies in a number of states expect to be hit by a one-two combination–they face reductions in fiscal 2004 after already having their budgets slashed in fiscal 2003. Arizona had to eliminate about a half billion dollars from its state budget in fiscal 2003, and a cut of $1 billion is expected for fiscal 2004. The 2003 budget asked most state agencies, including the historical society, state library, and archives, to slash at least 10 percent. The 2004 budget "may even be more drastic," according to Dan Shilling, executive director of the Arizona Humanities Council. "Needless to say," he added, "there won't be any major increases for history-related activities." In Wisconsin, the governor has recommended a reduction of $1.5 million and 30 positions supported by General Purpose Revenue (GPR)–that is, tax dollars–in the budget of the Wisconsin Historical Society starting July 1, 2003. Those figures constitute a cut of 15 percent GPR dollars and 24 percent of GPR positions. "No other similar state agency saw a cut that big except those that were completely eliminated," said state historian Michael Stevens. The 2004 cuts are on top of a $1.3 million reduction and elimination of 15 GPR positions in the current fiscal year. Combining the staff reductions of the past year with the current proposal results in 45 out of 140 tax-supported positions being eliminated over a 12-month period. Bob Thomasgard Jr, director of the Wisconsin Historical Society, indicated that they are working to mitigate the size of the governor's proposed cuts, but at this time it is unknown how the cuts will affect the organization.

The South Carolina Department of Archives and History faces a cut of 5.5 percent, or $250,000, for fiscal 2004. This reduction comes on the heels of two mid-year reductions during fiscal 2003 that forced the department to furlough all employees for five days between March 1 and June 30, 2003. According to an impact report provided to Perspectives by director Rodger E. Stroup, the Department of Archives and History has suffered a 25.2 percent reduction in funding since fiscal 2001. The department's fiscal 2003 budget of $3.77 million is virtually the identical to its budget for fiscal 1987. In consequence, the department has had to let go full-time staff members, or leave open positions vacant, resulting in a 24 percent reduction in full-time staff over the past three years (from 91 full-time positions in 2000 to 69 in 2003). The department has also lost two graduate interns and four part-time staff members. Stroup commented, "We are just trying to keep our basic services functioning, though at a reduced level. Everything we do is taking longer because we are so heavily dependent on staff." The department also had to reduce or cancel grants for historic preservation, as even had to return a federal grant from NHPRC because the required matching funds from the state were lost.

Connecticut is in an equally dire situation. In the budget proposed in early March, Governor John Rowland announced the creation of the "Connecticut Commission on Arts, Culture, and Tourism," which, if approved, would eliminate the Connecticut Historical Commission as an independent agency and merge it with the Connecticut Film Commission, the Connecticut Commission on the Arts, and the Tourism Division of the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development. The new entity would determine the state's funding for cultural programs in an effort to increase efficiency and cost savings. Heritage organizations in the state are upset about the proposed reorganization, as it would result in severe cuts in museum and preservation funding. According to Bruce Fraser, executive director of the Connecticut Humanities Council, "as presently constituted and envisioned, the new commission has no specific heritage granting program nor, indeed, does it mention heritage support anywhere in its organizing language other than acknowledging the current historic preservation responsibilities of the [to be discontinued] Historical Commission." The governor's budget would completely eliminate funding for four state museums (the Old Newgate Prison and Copper Mine, Prudence Crandall Museum, Henry Whitfield State Museum, and the Sloane-Stanley Museum), a historic restoration tax credit, the Connecticut Historical Commission's $600,000 historic restoration fund, the Connecticut Humanities Council's $1 million Cultural Heritage Fund, and $175,000 of grants run by the Humanities Council in collaboration with local initiatives. Supporters of the existing historical programs have formed the Connecticut Heritage Coalition to advocate maintaining current funding levels of the Connecticut Humanities Council's Cultural Heritage Development Fund and preserve the organizational and financial integrity of the Connecticut Historical Commission. The Heritage Coalition maintains a web site with updates on the situation at http://www.ctculture.org/chdf/index.htm.

In Maryland, state support for the archives budget for 2004 is being reduced by 12 percent. The archives has already replaced in-person reader and research-room services with Internet-based services and may not be able to undertake the preparation of new finding aids. In Minnesota the state Historical Society, which will suffer a 15 percent reduction in state funding in fiscal 2004, expects to close or operate on a reduced schedule the many historic sites it manages, will be laying off nearly 200 full—and part-time employees, and will have to make other adjustments in its work. But, as Nina Archabal (the MHS director) points out, the society will try to maintain as many programs as it can, especially concentrating on those serving children. "At a time when the schools also face challenges, our partnership with teachers and parents to bring the lessons of the past alive is vitally important," she said.

This report can only scratch the surface of what is going on, and there must be cases of budget cuts throughout the country going unreported. It is not even clear that there is an end in sight. As Rodger Stroup, the director of the South Carolina Department of Archives and History, states in an article in the spring 2003 issue of History News (the newsmagazine of the American Association of State and Local History), the most alarming news is that "it does not appear [the economy] will turnaround quickly, as in the past," and that shortfalls are predicted for the next fiscal year.5 Indeed, the National Governors Association estimates that it will take three to five years to overcome the current crisis. Although several history-related programs received record funding levels in the recent federal budget proposals, the impact on history programs of the economic crisis in the states cries out for historians' concern. 6 As Maryland State Archivist Edward C. Papenfuse asked, "When will academics and academic institutions realize that public archival institutions are essential to their future well being and band together to assist them materially in their plight?" The AHA is taking steps to do just that, as it continues to monitor the budget situation in a number of states so that informed action can be taken where necessary. (see box below, calling for information).

—David Darlington is assistant editor of Perspectives. He wishes to thank all those who took time to respond to his survey questions.

Notes

1. http://www.nga.org/nga/legislativeUpdate/1,1169,C_ISSUE_BRIEF^D_5080,00.html.

2. For details of the New Jersey cuts and their impact, see Bruce Craig, "History Hit Badly by Proposed Budget Cuts in Florida and New Jersey," Perspectives, March 2003, 8-9.

3. The full text of the letter is in Perspectives, March 2003.

4. In all, 109 queries were sent out via e-mail–65 to state historical societies or archive programs, and 44 to state humanities councils. Additionally, responses were solicited from members of the NCH Washington Update e-mail list. Replies were received from organizations in 27 different states.

5. Rodger E. Stroup, "Managing the State Budget Crisis" History News, spring 2003. (Perspectives received an advance copy of the article).

6. Bruce Craig, "Big Push for History in Bush Budget for 2004," Perspectives, March 2003, 18–20.