Last year, state legislators made a down payment on a new Burke Museum and promised to fund the rest in 2017. But now the capital budget is tied up in politics, and the half-finished Burke building construction could be shut down.
We’re good for it.
That was the promise two state lawmakers gave the University of Washington 18 months ago, when the UW was trying to decide whether to start construction on a new Burke Museum — even though the Legislature had only made a down payment on half the state funds needed to build it.
Still, with that promise in hand, the project got the go-ahead from the UW’s governing board. The construction crane went up, and the new Burke began taking shape on the corner of Northeast 45th Street and 15th Avenue Northeast.
Burke Museum by the numbers
$2 million: Cost of existing Burke Museum built in the 1960s
$79 million: Cost of new Burke building
$26 million: Amount the Legislature has already put toward the cost of the new building
$24 million: Needed to finish the new Burke building
$19.5 million: Private donations for the new building
$7.5 million: UW funding for the new building
$1.9 million: Public-arts funding from King County and the city of Seattle
What could possibly go wrong?
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Well, politics, for one.
Now Senate Republicans, angry over a recent Supreme Court ruling about wells, are holding up the state’s $4 billion capital budget, which includes $24 million to finish the $79 million Burke project. They say they won’t pass it without legislation aimed at overturning the ruling, which effectively limits the use of new domestic wells in certain rural areas when they may harm water rights.
Some Republicans also are angry that Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed a big tax break for manufacturers in the regular budget, and say they won’t approve a capital budget unless the House helps override that decision.
So the UW is faced with the possibility it will have to shut down construction, send contractors home and lock up an empty shell of a building until the money comes through — perhaps when the Legislature reconvenes next January, or perhaps not until 2019. (Like the operating budget, the capital budget is usually approved every two years.)
“We are on track and we are on budget — and we are out of money at the end of this month,” said Randy Hodgins, vice president of external affairs. “We felt we had to go on record saying, ‘If for some reason you can’t get this done, we’re going to shut this thing down.’ ”
The UW is just the museum’s operator, not its owner. The Burke is Washington state’s museum, an institution that belongs to the taxpayers, not the university.
And it is beloved by dinosaur enthusiasts, admirers of Northwest coast native artwork, researchers and school children who make annual pilgrimages to the museum. It has a collection of 15 million objects — from ancient fossils to cultural treasures to one of the world’s largest collections of genetic bird tissue.
Also in jeopardy if the capital budget bill does not pass: about $937 million for school construction funding, which is given in matching grants to school districts that have passed levies for new buildings or modernization projects; and more than $100 million for mental health, including about $65 million to add community beds and more than $10 million to improve the troubled Western State Hospital, Washington’s largest psychiatric facility
The existing Burke Museum building was constructed for $2 million in the 1960s and has no central air conditioning or climate controls. That puts its collection at risk of degradation. And there’s so little storage room left that the building’s collections are stored one on top of another, Burke Executive Director Julie Stein said.
In the summer, when the temperature outside hits 90 degrees, so too does the inside of the building, Stein said. Among the objects threatened: A collection of 8,000 Native American baskets.
“Especially in the summer, when the humidity goes up and down, the fibers in those baskets absorb moisture, swell and shrink, which rubs the fibers together,” she said. “They are literally rubbing themselves apart.”
The Legislature has already put $26 million toward the cost of the new building. The $79 million budget also includes $19.5 million in private donations, $7.5 million from the UW and another $1.9 million from public-arts funding from King County and the city of Seattle.
When the UW Regents approved construction in January 2016, there was a debate about whether the Legislature would come through with the second half of its pledge. Still, it seemed like a reasonable risk, especially with written promises from state Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, the vice-chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee who oversees the capital budget, and Rep. Steve Tharinger, D-Sequim, who chairs the House budget committee.
Honeyford could not be reached for comment.
Back in January 2016, before the regents voted, UW President Ana Mari Cauce told them: “Everyone here is uncomfortable with this — no one likes ‘trust me,’ especially when we’re talking about millions of dollars.”
Now her worries seem prescient.
Earlier this week, Cauce penned a letter to lawmakers, explaining how shutting down the project will increase its budget by at least an additional $3 million to $5 million, which includes the costs of securing and preserving the partially finished building. And once construction resumes, she wrote, it might cost an additional $2 million to $3 million to start the project up again and renegotiate contracts “in an extremely competitive construction market.”
Stein said the end-of-session threat to the capital budget has left staffers anxious about what will happen next.
“We are very hopeful, however — we know both the House and Senate have the Burke Museum in the capital budget, and they’ve cared about this project all along,” she said. “We just are really hopeful this is all going to work out.”
The building was scheduled to open in summer 2019. But that’s no longer certain either.
“Who’da thunk?” Hodgins said.