- Associated Press - Friday, November 18, 2016

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - A decision to raise ticket prices and eliminate some free-entrance days at New Mexico’s world renowned state museums and historic sites has provided a boost in revenue to the state’s cash strapped culture agency since the start of July.

That money alone won’t be enough offset this year’s spending cuts to the Department of Cultural Affairs, whose top administrators told state lawmakers on Friday that a fresh round of layoffs may be the only way to balance the agency’s books.

Changes in entrance fees have been accompanied by a drop in ticketed attendance at a network of eight state museums and eight cultural sites that represent an engine of the state tourism economy, displaying cultural treasures from the story of Billy the Kid to international folk art, oil paintings and space rockets.

Cultural Affairs Secretary Veronica Gonzales told the Associated Press the agency is on-track to raise an additional $450,000 from ticket sales and special events during the current fiscal year. Lawmakers and Gov. Susana Martinez slashed 5.5 percent, or $1.6 million, from the agency’s budget in October as they sought to close a major general fund deficit.

Before those spending cuts, the agency this year already laid off a dozen people. Gonzales said more layoffs may be inevitable at a department that spends 70 percent of its budget on personnel and currently employs 414.

“We don’t have that money to pull away from any program or places,” she said. “We have to look at personnel. I don’t think it will be solved by attrition.”

Gonzales also warned lawmakers Friday that the days of operation at museums may be reduced to four or five days per week, from six. Other facilities may be shut down entirely, she said, without specifying which ones.

Attendance at the museums and historic sites from July 1 through the end of October - whether free and paid - declined by about 44,000 from the previous year to 272,275.

Agency spokeswoman Loie Fecteau said it was too soon to tell whether new admission prices and policies influenced attendance. Some of the higher attendance in 2015 can be linked to blockbuster exhibits on red-color dyes at the Museum of International Folk Art and a Georgia O’Keeffe exhibit at the New Mexico Museum of Art.

Revenues from July-September admissions climbed to $692,000, up 12 percent from the same 2015 period.

Budget problems for the cultural agency are just one example of how an extended downturn in the New Mexico oil and natural gas sectors has rippled through the state economy and government finances.

The state judicial system this week warned of possible unpaid furloughs for employees, as the overall state government workforce gradually shrinks through attrition. The number of state employees is down 12 percent since 2009.

Lawmakers on the Legislative Finance Committee that drafts the state budget offered no reassurances that funding cuts to museums would be restored.

Sen. John Arthur Smith, chairman of the committee, said the state is struggling to shore up reserves and protect a credit rating that can increase borrowing costs for construction projects, including capital spending at cultural facilities.

“We share your concerns,” he said. “We wish we could win the lottery but at this time we’re struggling with how to pay the light bill.”

In July, the entrance fees at four state museums in Santa Fe went up from $9 to $12 for out-of-state visitors who make of the bulk of ticketed attendance. Free Sundays for in-state visitors were scaled back from every Sunday to the first Sunday of the month. At the Lincoln Historic Site, the state’s most popular, tickets rose from $5 to $7.

An array of discounts and free entry options are still available, including free family passes that can be checked out of local libraries. In Santa Fe, children and youths up to 16 get into museums free, along with senior citizens ages 60 and up, and those who have donated to museum support foundations.

Efforts to shore up the state general fund also may pull away $2.5 million in funding for the Art in Public Places program that helps commissions art work at new state buildings and facilities.

Concerns also are being raised that funding might dry up for arts services grants to small nonprofits that are bolstered by matching funds from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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