Let’s Get Heritage Agency in Place Quickly

December 7, 2009

Let’s Get Heritage Agency in Place Quickly

For release noon Tuesday Dec.  and thereafter (675 words)
“Good ideas are not adopted automatically,” Admiral Hyman Rickover once said. “They must be driven into practice with courageous patience.”

Rickover’s counsel is an understatement when it comes to the idea to create a Department of Indiana Heritage. A proposal to combine Indiana’s diverse history-related offices into a single agency has been percolating for over a decade with support from Republicans and Democrats. Yet it never seems to materialize. Its chief advocate, state Sen. Jim Merritt, R-Indianapolis, has been a study in patience.
Gov. Frank O’Bannon said he liked the idea in 1997. In 1998, the Interim Study Committee on State Government Issues voted unanimously “to adopt the concept of creating a Department of Indiana Heritage.” Merritt, vice-chair of that committee, has since introduced a bill to create a heritage agency “six or seven times.”
In October, a newspaper reported that Gov. Mitch Daniels was on the verge of signing an executive order to create a heritage department, bypassing the legislative process. The Indianapolis Business Journal said the unexplained resignation of Indiana State Museum CEO Barry Dressel was part of the transition. Again, nothing materialized.
“There is nothing happening with a proposed heritage agency,” Daniels’ spokeswoman Jane Jankowski says. “It was an idea that staff looked into last summer/early fall, but there was no action and none is planned for now. “
If almost everybody thinks a Department of Indiana Heritage is a good idea, what’s the holdup?
First, the idea has no constituency — no group like angry property taxpayers — to lobby aggressively for its adoption. Second, there’s natural resistance from existing state offices that would be affected. They may not actively oppose the idea, but they don’t embrace it due to the uncertainty consolidation would create for their budgets and staffs. Third, there always seems to be a bigger priority. The recession has meant declining revenues, which in turn have led to cuts in “non-essential” government services. History preservation is one of those.
Yet the reasons for a merged department are as pressing today as they were in 1997 when James A. Glass, a Ball State University professor at the time, made the case for it in a position paper prepared at Merritt’s invitation. Glass now serves as director of the Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology in the Department of Natural Resources.
“After some remarkable accomplishments in conserving its heritage and promoting its use and enjoyment, Indiana has lost ground over the last 30 years,” the paper said. “The seven divisions or agencies in state government that have heritage in their missions have been split up among six agencies and have lacked a single voice. Ever increasing competition for funds within the state budget has led the heritage agencies to fall behind in their capacities to maintain their collections, facilities and programs.”
Under the original proposal, the offices to be combined were: Division of State Museum and Historic Sites, Indiana State Library, Indiana War Memorials Commission, Division of Historic Preservation and Archeology, Historical Bureau, Commission on Public Records and heritage tourism offices.
These agencies do need to speak with one voice about heritage policies and priorities. This is even more evident today as the crown jewel of Indiana heritage, the State Museum, finds itself struggling.
Before his resignation, Dressel forecast museum attendance to drop 20 percent this year to 142,647 from 163,706 in fiscal 2008, the result of marketing budget cuts. Compare that to record setting attendance of 260,000 in 2002, the year the museum opened in its new White River State Park facility. Last week’s announcement that the museum would close its public galleries on most Mondays in 2010 added further uncertainty to the picture.
Merritt has said all along that a key goal of a heritage department is to avoid duplication and achieve efficiency. That could compensate for recent budget cuts. With the state’s 2016 bicentennial not so far away, it is vital that the state fine-tune the way it administers historic preservation. A single heritage agency is a good idea. It’s time to make it a reality.

Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at aneal@inpolicy.org.


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