Smithsonian Challenged to Raise More Private Funds

Sen. Dianne Feinstein during a hearing on funding and repair issues at the Smithsonian.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein during a hearing on funding and repair issues at the Smithsonian. (By Jacquelyn Martin -- Associated Press)

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By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 13, 2007

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), frustrated at hearing Smithsonian Institution officials say that raising money for crumbling facilities from private sources was almost impossible, threw down the gauntlet yesterday.

Feinstein announced that she had crafted an agreement that would put an additional $15 million in the Smithsonian federal account if the museum raised $30 million in private funds for maintenance and revitalization. At a hearing with Smithsonian executives before the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, Feinstein said she had worked out the plan, called the Legacy Fund, with the Senate and House Appropriations subcommittees on the interior and other agencies. Now she was looking for the Smithsonian support.

"We all need to be more creative and come up with alternative solutions," said Feinstein, who is also chairman of the Senate subcommittee. "I will do my level best to provide every dollar I can to the Smithsonian."

Listening to the challenge were Roger Sant, chairman of the Smithsonian Board of Regents executive committee; Robert Kogod, chairman of the Regents facilities committee; and Cristián Samper, acting secretary of the Smithsonian. At first they hesitated to fully endorse the offer, with Kogod holding out for a one-to-one match. "I believe this would be most compelling," he said.

Feinstein demanded some agreement on her challenge. In an unusual move, she strong-armed the Smithsonian officials until she got their endorsement.

At one point, Samper said, "We have noted your efforts in establishing the Legacy Fund, and appreciate it."

Feinstein interrupted his testimony: " Noted?"

Samper amended: "We are very grateful."

And Feinstein replied: "No, not 'grateful.' I hope it would be 'very supportive.' "

Kogod didn't provide a satisfactory response either when he said, "Respectfully, we request that if you could give consideration to the one-to-one, it would be very appreciated."

Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah) took him to task, saying: "My advice is to take what you can get, take the two-to-one for this year and come back later on." Finally, everyone agreed that it was a good beginning.

Then Feinstein and Bennett, the ranking minority member of the Senate Rules Committee, grilled the officials and Mark Goldstein, a director at the Government Accountability Office who has been tracking the maintenance issues at the museum, about the estimated $2.5 billion cost of repairing the facilities: Could these costs balloon in the future? And what projects were included?

Goldstein said the costs had escalated since the 2005 estimate of $2.3 billion and that the Smithsonian regents hadn't done a complete analysis of ways to raise money. He added that the estimates are always preliminary numbers, but rarely shrink.

Samper said the figure did not include $400 million for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, now on the drawing boards, and $200 million for the restoration of the Arts and Industries Building.

Samper said the priority was fixing the existing buildings and outlined several funding avenues under consideration, including a national campaign and a federal income tax check-off contribution.

Looking at the growth of the Smithsonian over the past two decades, Bennett said one way to solve the backlog problem was "to put a lid on the amount of square footage added to the Smithsonian. That brings an annual cost that never goes away."

Feinstein added, "Until the maintenance is on an even keel, we cannot build, build."

The Legacy Fund is included in the Interior appropriations bill for fiscal 2008. Though it remains to be seen whether the full House and Senate will approve it, Feinstein said she is optimistic.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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