History museum may be casualty in Illinois budge battle
Springfield, Ill. — The skeleton of a massive mastodon, thousands of Native American artifacts and a giant shark could be the next casualties in an increasingly ugly fight over Illinois’ state budget that has dragged on for months with no sign of ending.
The pieces are among millions held by the Illinois State Museum, a favorite stop for school groups and scientists looking to learn the history of a state that, millions of years before it went broke, was literally underwater.
Now Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner is targeting the 138-year-old museum and four satellite sites for closure, the latest in a series of cuts the former businessman says are needed to manage Illinois’ finances as he battles with Democrats who run the Legislature. The move is also designed to put pressure on lawmakers by ensuring more voters feel the impact of having no state budget.
Among the first items to get the governor’s ax were the state airplanes that lawmakers often used to make the 200-mile trip between Chicago and Springfield. Then low-income parents and seniors took a hit through cuts to subsidized child care and in-home care. Now the museum is on the chopping block, in a highly visible step that could either force lawmakers to the table or backfire on the rookie governor.
Rauner’s decision comes even as other states spend millions to expand museums to lure more visitors. The locations that could be closed by the end of September include an archaeological site where Native American remains were unearthed and later reburied.
“We are so sad,” said Twila Cline, whose 7-year-old granddaughter chose to spend her last free day before starting second grade visiting the Springfield museum, where kids can get their hands dirty in a faux archaeological dig or come eye to eye with a short-faced bear. Cline takes her two grandkids to the museum, where admission is free, every month. “It’s what we do.”
Rauner says Democrats have forced his hand by not agreeing on a budget or accepting anti-union, pro-business priorities he wants. Closing the museum would mean about 65 workers would lose their jobs, and collections boxed away.
“I don’t like to make cuts,” he said.
Democrats, who want Rauner to sign off on a tax increase to help close a multibillion-dollar budget gap, say his requests will destroy organized labor and hurt the middle class. The standoff is sending Illinois into the third month of the current fiscal year without a budget.
A vocal band of supporters has pushed back, starting a “Save the Illinois State Museum” Facebook page and handing out fliers outside the governor’s office, dressed in bright yellow shirts emblazoned with the outline of a mastodon.
After Rauner visited a summer camp at the museum, the kids sent him a thank-you note with personal messages.
Rauner’s office says closing the museum would save Illinois about $4.8 million. Supporters say that’s pocket change in a state facing a deficit of roughly $4 billion, and could actually cost Illinois money because some research grants require access to items entrusted to the museum, said Guerry Suggs, a museum board member.
Republican state Rep. Tim Butler, who lives in Springfield, is breaking with Rauner and supporting legislation to keep the museum open, citing the tourism that would be lost. His district is also home to Abraham Lincoln’s presidential library and multiple historic sites.
Across the U.S., places as diverse as Colorado, New York City and North Carolina are making heavy investments in museums, often as the centerpiece of cultural areas and ad campaigns to attract visitors and new businesses.
In Illinois, the state museums saw 387,000 visitors last year, who spent an estimated $33 million, Suggs said.
He’s hopeful the House will pass the bill, though the fight won’t end there because the measure doesn’t include money to cover operations.
“The museum doesn’t belong to the governor. It doesn’t belong to the Legislature,” he said. “It belongs to the people of Illinois.”
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