CARSON CITY — Senate Minority Leader Bill Raggio objected Thursday when legislators spoke of trying to find state funds to open the $47 million, still-unfinished Nevada State Museum at the Las Vegas Springs Preserve.
“No one has looked forward more in the Legislature than me to opening the new museum in Clark County,” said Raggio, R-Reno. “However, I am going to have a tough time opening that building and funding it when we are going to close three or four other museums and lay off people.”
He spoke during a Senate-Assembly budget committee hearing. Several committee members said the lack of funds will delay opening of the Las Vegas museum, close museums in other parts of the state and force most museum employees to work 32-hour weeks.
State Cultural Affairs Department Director Michael Fischer said the new museum will become the flagship of the state museum system when it opens.
But he told the committee he has not found donors willing to put up the $6 million he needs to build exhibits for the museum, which probably will be completed this spring.
Some private pledges were made, Fischer said, but they fell through.
Also, the budget proposed by Gov. Jim Gibbons does not include funds for the 12 additional workers that would be hired when the museum opens.
Other employees would be transferred from the Nevada State Museum in Lorenzi Park. That facility would close after the Las Vegas Preserve museum opens.
“We will be the only state in the country that has a flagship museum that is not open,” said Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno. “People can drive by and wave.”
She and Sen. Bernice Mathews, D-Reno, lamented the budget cuts that Gibbons proposes for the Department of Cultural Affairs.
The department oversees the Division of Museums and History, the state Library and Archives, the State Historic Preservation Office and the Nevada Arts Council.
Under Gibbons’ budget, state funds for the department would be reduced by 40 percent.
The East Ely Railroad Depot Museum would close, as would the Comstock History Center in Virginia City.
The public viewing area of the Nevada Historical Society in Reno would close, and the state Archives in Carson City would be open only by appointment.
Fischer said 66 employees, 40 percent of his staff, would be eliminated. Some of the positions currently are not filled. Most other employees would work 32-hour weeks.
Instead of being open seven days a week, all museums would be open Thursday through Sunday starting in July if Gibbons’ budget is approved by legislators.
“We know these are tough times,” Fischer said. “We clearly did not wish to take that approach. We are all making extremely difficult choices.”
Even if money became available, Fischer said after the meeting, the new museum would not open before 2011. Originally, officials had hoped for an opening this year.
Leslie said she hopes to discuss ways to come up with funds for the Cultural Affairs Department in coming meetings.
“All these cuts are wiping out a wide section of your department,” Leslie replied. “I don’t think we should do that. I think we are going to be revising this budget.”
Democratic leaders are not expected to discuss proposals to raise taxes before April.
In response to Leslie’s comments, Raggio raised his opposition to opening a Las Vegas museum when others are being closed.
“I am disappointed that people made pledges for private funding and then it didn’t come forward,” he added. “They reneged. Private funds were part of the initial approval.”
Mathews said closing museums especially hurts poor people.
“How can we live without culture?” she asked. “This is a very big loss for the state of Nevada.”
Mathews described how her six children grew up going to the Nevada Historical Society and Reno libraries.
“I can’t imagine kids not having that exposure. They love reading and exploring Nevada because of the Nevada Historical Society.”
The existing Clark County state museums — Lost City Museum in Overton, the state railroad museum in Boulder City and the Lorenzi Park museum — fared better than other museums under the governor’s proposed budget.
Four positions at the museums would be eliminated, of which two are now vacant. All employees would work 32-hour weeks.
Fischer said museums, archives, libraries and history centers “take people who move to Nevada and make them Nevadans.”
“If you grew up in Los Angeles, you don’t know much about a riata made out of rawhide,” he added.
Having good museums is a way to induce tourists to stay an extra day in Nevada, Fischer said.
Contact Las Vegas Review-Journal Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@ reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901.