Preservationists Say If Perry Kills Historical Commission, He Could Also Decimate Future

It hasn't been easy reaching a preservationist in this state in the last couple of hours. Or in D.C., for that matter. Not since Governor Rick Perry announced earlier today that in order to save the state some money, he's proposing the elimination of the Texas Historical Commission, at least during the next two-year budget cycle.

The Texas Historical Commission plants those historical markers. It makes sure that the more than 234 historic courthouses remaining in the state remain upright. It helps maintain Texas's entries on the list of National Register of Historic Places. And, among its myriad other duties, it oversees the distribution of the federal historic preservation tax incentives that help fund the rehabs of old, abandoned downtown buildings.

There's the theory going around that Perry wants the THC torn down as revenge for its holding up plans to redo the burned-down Governor's Mansion. Maybe, maybe not. He's not saying. The THC is but one of several agencies the governors wants eliminated, temporarily and permanently, including the Texas Commission for the Arts, whose supporters are equally outraged.

But preservationists have been on conference call after conference call all afternoon because they're terrified Perry's proposal will "significantly" stall out renovation projects statewide, including the recently announced plans to rescue the old U.S. Post Office and Courthouse downtown.

"From a financial standpoint, all of the tax-credit projects -- which means, most of the renovations that have taken place in downtown in the past decade -- would be significantly delayed by ... well, as long as there's no funding to the agency," says Katherine Seale, executive director of Preservation Dallas. "Tax credit projects that are in line, tax credit projects that are currently working through the process and projects that are eligible, they wouldn't get their federal 20-percent tax credit -- or it would be significantly delayed. If the agency were eliminated, there would be no process for them to work through to get their 20- percent tax credit, which these projects depend upon."

The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 says that every state must have a historic preservation office, and one of the THC's responsibilities involves processing those investment tax credits. Mark Wolfe, the exec director of the THC, tells Unfair Park this evening that he's unaware of any state ever eliminating its state preservation office. Which means he's not quite sure of the ramifications when it comes to doling out federal funds. Or whether eliminating the THC would violate the federal act outright.

"At this point, I don't know what it would mean to owners who would quality for tax credits," he says. "There may be some other mechanism where they could apply directly through the Park Department or another entity, but that's not in place at the moment. The National Historic Preservation Act does require states have preservation offices -- or at least provide certain functions -- and it offers some cash incentives. We are a partially funded mandate, you could say. But those services would need to be provided at some level by the state."

Seale calls today's announcement a "major shock."  Which isn't to say preservationists were completely unprepared: In recent weeks, she says, word has circulated throughout the state that some cuts to some programs were inevitable -- they have, after all, been proposed in budgets prepared by both the state House and Senate. But eliminating the entire agency? Today was the first any of them had heard of it.

"I don't think anyone saw this coming," Seale says. "In the past month we've heard a lot of discussion about major cuts to these state agencies like the Texas Historical Commission, and so everybody was preparing for how we would work with a very much reduced agency. But nobody heard anything about eliminating the agency altogether. It really caught everyone off guard.

"And it's really troubling, because the Texas Historical Commission oversees the Section 106 process, which is that federal process that all preservation projects have to abide by for anything that involves government spending," she adds. "So any roadway projects, any building projects, any courthouse projects, anything that uses any state funding would be eliminated or delayed."

Wolfe is trying not to panic; as THC spokesperson Debbie Head told me earlier today, "This is just a starting point," after all. The THC's exec director expects to begin meetings with members of the state Legislature and Perry staffers to go over each of the agency's projects and decide which are crucial and which can be temporarily suspended.

But one thing is clear, says Wolfe: Perry's mandate "would mean the termination of a number of programs, and that's where this takes us -- to sit down with appropriate folks and walk through that program list and make some decisions. In the House and Senate budget versions we may already have to eliminate a number of those programs."

Among those that will likely be the first to go: the Texas Heritage Trails Program, a tourism initiative whose origins date back to Gov. John Connally.

"A lot of work still needs to be done, and I understand the position the state is in," Wolfe says. "The state of the economy is dire, and we need to recognize our agency and others will have to give something in order for things to be worked out, and we are prepared to do that. We hope we can work out an agreement that'll leave the agency with its core programs and some we'll have to do without for a period of time. The agency is not funded for two years. But others are being combined or eliminated. This one is proposed for no funds in the next two years, which leave the door open for the future."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky