Secretary of State wants to relinquish control of Louisiana museums he can’t afford _lowres

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Andrew and Tammy Dunning, from Lebanon Township, New Jersey couple visiting Baton Rouge, descends the majestic spiral staircase in the Old State Capitol Thursday. The couple was visiting downtown Baton Rouge after a scheduled stop by the riverboat American Queen. The staircase and the mosaic stained glass ceiling were not original in the building, but were added in the 1882 rebuild.

Secretary of State Tom Schedler is asking the Louisiana Legislature if his cash-strapped office can relinquish control over a handful of small, state-run museums.

State dollars for government agencies are shrinking, and Schedler’s budget for museums for the 2017 fiscal year is projected to drop more than 50 percent to $1.5 million from $3.3 million this year.

Schedler’s chief obligation as secretary of state is to oversee state elections, but he also has 14 museums under his operations, including the Old State Capitol, which alone costs $1.4 million a year to run.

“Each year, it’s getting worse and worse, and I’m more convinced than ever that there’s no money coming back from the administration to reinforce these museums,” Schedler told a Senate committee Tuesday, while explaining several individual bills that ceded his authority over specific museums.

But rather than shutter museums, Schedler said he’s been working with local governments and nonprofit groups, asking them to take over the various historical facilities.

Schedler is backing bills to cede control of five museums across the state: the Chennault Aviation and Military Museum in Monroe, the Schepis Museum in Columbia, the Eddie G. Robinson Museum on Grambling State University campus and the Germantown Colony Museum in Minden. The Senate Education committee approved the five measures — Senate bills 63, 139, 246, 248, 250 — and sent them to the full Senate for consideration.

Service is not expected to be disrupted, he said, because some agencies already have agreed to take over the operations, which in some cases only means a single employee. For example, he said, he’s working with Grambling to take over control of the Eddie Robinson museum and the Ouachita Parish School Board to take over Chennault Aviation.

But he already released three other museums back to local governments including the Garyville Timbermill Museum, Mansfield Female College Museum and the Louisiana State Cotton Museum in Lake Providence because of earlier cuts to his budget.

He said if his budget for 2017 doesn’t change, then he’d likely have to give up more museums, or potentially cut back hours at some of the bigger ones like the Old State Capitol and the Louisiana State Exhibit Museum in Shreveport.

Schedler said his museum budget has shrunk from about $4.5 million since he took office in 2011. But the former state senator said he also understands where his office stands in terms of priority as the state endures a budget shortfall of $750 million next fiscal year starting July 1. He said he won’t be asking to compete with funding for higher education and hospitals.

“If I was going to the ER in triage, I’d be on the curb while the people with the gunshot wounds are inside getting care,” he said. “You’re dealing with higher education and health care and NOW waivers. I’m sympathetic to the situation.”

Schedler also said if his office funding is somehow restored in the budget cycle, he’d have the freedom to keep the museums under his control.

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