- Associated Press - Monday, July 13, 2015

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) - Closing the 138-year-old Illinois State Museum and its satellite sites would damage the state’s scholarly reputation, harm future research opportunities and potentially open the door to lawsuits, supporters of the cultural institution told lawmakers Monday.

In an overflowing Capitol hearing room, the bipartisan Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability heard hours of testimony, largely critical of Gov. Bruce Rauner’s proposal to close the sites as a way to save the cash-strapped Prairie State $4.8 million a year.

The Republican governor’s proposal last month to shutter the Springfield museum, the Dickson Mounds burial grounds in western Illinois and three artisan galleries - in Chicago, Lockport and Rend Lake in southern Illinois - was based on his dispute with the Democratic-controlled General Assembly over a state spending plan. Since then, little progress has been made.

“Rarely is something essential, a bargain, but the Illinois State Museum system truly is,” state Sen. Pat McGuire, a Joliet Democrat, told the commission. “The state museum’s holdings are unique, they’re irreplaceable, they’re the stuff of ongoing research and education - and they’re already paid for.”

Closing the doors would mean packing away 13.5 million items, including the remains of the largest known American mastodon on record, evidence of the earliest domesticated dogs from Green and Calhoun counties and countless other exhibits that have captivated 40,000 schoolchildren who visit annually, one of which was Springfield Mayor Jim Langfelder.



“I still remember the buffalo exhibit - that’s my favorite one,” Langfelder told the commission.

State law requires the legislative commission receive notice of an administration’s plans to close a state facility, but the commission’s recommendations are advisory only; the governor still has final say.

Democrats have proposed a spending plan they acknowledge falls short on revenue by $4 billion. They want a tax increase to protect vital services, but Rauner won’t budge on spending until legislators approve his business-friendly reforms designed to spur investment and job-creation.

The closure is one of several “management steps” Rauner must take because Democrats “overspent taxpayer money for years,” spokeswoman Catherine Kelly said. It’s necessary because there’s no guarantee there’s money enough to keep it open until there’s a deal, she said.

“I don’t think anybody questions the fact that the museums are important for educational purposes,” said Wayne Rosenthal, director of the sites’ parent agency, the Department of Natural Resources. “It’s the fact that we have a $4 billion.”

A shutdown would mean laying off 68 employees, although a few would stay to monitor packed-away specimens at a yearly cost of $1.5 million.

It also might mean the museum’s national accreditation would be yanked, state museum board chairman Guerry Suggs said. He said 387,000 annual visitors who spend $30 million would be turned away and the door could open to legal trouble from donors, for example, who contributed items with the understanding they’d be displayed.

Asked why it’s important to retain the originals instead of photos or man-made models, associate curator Chris Widga said the state’s artifacts contain information that rapidly changing technology will unveil in the future.

“Ten years ago,” Widga said, “If I’d mentioned that we’re now getting DNA out of some of these fossils, people would have laughed at me.”

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Online:

Illinois State Museum: https://www.museum.state.il.us/

Museum closing plan: https://bit.ly/1Lc2jb0

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Contact Political Writer John O’Connor at https://twitter.com/apoconnor

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