History Hit Badly by Proposed Budget Cuts in Florida and New Jersey

Bruce Craig, March 2003

Confronted by enormous gaps between projected tax revenues and budgetary needs, some state governments are hitting history budgets while taking drastic action to solve their financial woes. By some estimates the collective budget shortfall for state governments currently stands at $25.7 billion, with next year's projected shortfall rising to a whopping $68.5 billion. Immediately at risk are the nation's historical and cultural institutions.

In two states-New Jersey and Florida-history and archives are the latest victims of budget cuts. In Florida, Republican Governor Jeb Bush also proposes a simplistic solution to the budget plight-close the Florida State Library, turn over the Florida State Archives to the parks department, and lay off more than 50 employees. In New Jersey, Democratic Governor James E. McGreevey has proposed a budget that deletes all funding for history and the arts and would abolish the New Jersey Historical Commission.

The situation in Florida is particularly dire and demands immediate action. Under Governor Bush's proposed budget, the Library of Florida will be disbanded and the Florida State Archives will undergo a massive reorganization. In order to save $5.4 million annually, the governor proposes zeroing out funding for the library, eliminating 55 positions, and transferring the library holdings to Florida State University (FSU) in Tallahassee, an institution that according to inside sources, has "no money and no space" (an estimated 11 miles of shelving are needed for the book collection alone) for the state library's holdings. Bush does not plan to reallocate any state financial resources to the university to care for the collections. In fact, he has proposed a $17.6 million cut. Recent press reports state that FSU officials have told Bush that the university refuses to take in the library collection, but sources report that at least five other closing options remain under active consideration.

According to the Bush plan, some divisions of the library would be transferred to the Department of State (a department which is itself slotted for a major overhaul) and the state archives would be transferred to the state parks department which is part of the Department of Environmental Protection. There, a reduced staff of 15 employees would staff the facility. The records management division would also be split off and would operate with reduced staffing. The net effect of the plan is the wholesale dismantling of 50 years of systematic collecting of historical, genealogical, and archeological materials and shipping them off in fragments to agencies that have no record of expertise in the needed fields.

"This is a matter of serious concern to all librarians, archivists, historians, and records managers," states Jim Schnur, a history instructor at Eckerd College and one of the opponents to the Bush plan. "This flawed proposal would not only damage library services to Floridians in the short term, it would also hinder scholarship and research in Florida history and culture in the long term" he said. At risk are the rich state library collections of 900,000 items dating back to 1845, including the 236,000 item Florida Collection (including printed materials, state government documents, maps and microfilm reels containing genealogical materials), 9,700 videos, 330,000 bound books of historical importance to writing about Florida and the nation. Also threatened are the contested election ballots from the 2000 presidential election; they face destruction through legislative inaction.

The Florida presidential ballots and other nationally significant 2000 election materials are under the supervision of the Florida Division of Library and Information Services, one of the agencies slotted to be abolished by the governor. Readers may recall that last year state archivist James Berberich extended the disposition deadline for the contested ballots to July 2003 in order to give the state legislature time to address the disposition issue (see "Florida Ballot Controversy—The Future of Ballots Still in Limbo" NCC WASHINGTON UPDATE—8:26, 27 June 2002). The next session of the legislature is scheduled to begin March 4, 2003, and will probably continue through May 2, 2003. According to a state spokesperson, officials are working on a policy recommendation that will be advanced next month to the legislature for its consideration. Unless the state legislature acts by July 1, 2003, there is nothing to stop the destruction of the ballots—probably among the most important election records in the history of the nation. A coalition comprised of the Florida Historical Society, Florida Archeological Council, Florida Anthropological Society, Florida Trust for Historic Preservation, and the Florida Association of Museums has been created to counter the governor's plans.

In New Jersey, Governor McGreevey confronts a $5 billion deficit. He has proposed saving $43 million by eliminating all funding for history and the arts unless a stable source of alternative funding for history, the arts, and tourism can be found. Two groups—the Public Policy Center of New Jersey and the Coalition for the Arts, Tourism, Culture and History (CATCH)—have proposed a fundamental restructuring to bring the state's tourism, history, and arts programs together under a single agency, and to find the necessary funds.

CATCH proposes a broad-based 3 percent tourism tax on lodging and a 2 percent tax on restaurants, entertainment, and amusements. The new tax could generate $250 million a year—funds that would be dedicated by a constitutional amendment to fund tourism, the arts, history, and municipal aid programs. The savings to the state would be about $140 million in the fiscal 2004 budget alone. According to David A. Cowell, president of the Advocates for New Jersey History, "the CATCH plan would not only assure the future of New Jersey history programs, but also enable the state to create a heritage tourism industry where one does not yet exist." The group hopes to have the new tax go into effect as part of the fiscal 2004 budget bill and then have the measure become law via a referendum vote in November 2003.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there is "no immediate end in sight" for the states' budget troubles; in fact, it's getting worse.

—Bruce Craig.