Debt Commission Urges User Fees at the Smithsonian and Park Service Facilities

On November 10, the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility released a draft of its recommendations to the President on ways to reduce the federal budget deficit. Among the recommendations was a proposal to reduce federal funding to the Smithsonian Institution and the National Park Service and allow the programs to offset the reduction through charging visitors fees at the Smithsonian and imposing or increasing them at Park Service facilities.

The Commission’s rationale for the user fee option is set forth below:

The Smithsonian’s budget is projected to approach $1 billion in 2015. This option reduces net spending by charging a fee to Smithsonian visitors.

According to the Commission, there were about 30 million visitors to the 19 Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo in 2009. Under this option, $225 million, or less than a quarter of the Smithsonian’s 2015 budget, would be paid for by charging visitors fees. Notable private museums across the United States tend to charge anywhere from $10 to $20 per visitor, with lower rates for children and seniors. World class zoos in the United States charge more, or closer to $20 or $25 per visitor. Raising $225 million in fees would average about $7.50 per visitor.

The National Park Service (NPS) budget is projected to exceed $3 billion in 2015. The National Parks receive nearly 290 million visitors annually and an estimated 10 percent of total NPS spending goes toward visitor services. Under this option, $75 million in 2015, or about a quarter of the expected spending on visitor services, would be paid for by a small increase in visitor fees. Where visitor fees have been instituted, they vary greatly and are often anywhere from $3 to $25 per week. Raising $75 million in visitor fees would average under $0.25 per visitor.

This option also requires that both the Smithsonian and National Park Service work through outstanding maintenance projects until the backlogs are below $1 billion for each agency before funding new projects. In 2007, the Government Accountability Office found that the Smithsonian had a maintenance backlog of $2.5 billion that was causing damage to historic items.

The Commission estimates that together, these options would save about $300 million in 2015.

The Smithsonian quickly issued a press release (see below) in response to the Commission on Fiscal Responsibility’s recommendation that it charge user fees.

“The Smithsonian is the national museum and has been open—free of charge—for 164 years. In a sense, Americans already pay to visit the Smithsonian with their tax dollars, which provide about two-thirds of the Smithsonian’s annual budget. Because there is no admission fee, people are able to see their national treasures, participate in educational programs and visit exhibitions regardless of their ability to pay.

The Commission’s recommendation that the Smithsonian charge admission would create a barrier for many audiences—those who are underserved and who would most benefit from exposure to the Smithsonian’s collections, exhibitions and research.

The Commission’s recommendation states that 30 million visitors come to Smithsonian museums every year. This is incorrect. The Smithsonian receives 30 million visits each year. Surveys have shown that most visitors go to more than one museum during a single visit, which means they are counted two or three times, depending on how many buildings they enter.

The recommendation does not appear to take into account the likelihood that an entrance fee may decrease the number of tourists, which would not only deprive many families of the benefit they have earned with their tax dollars, but would also have a negative

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impact on the business income earned in the Smithsonian’s museum shops, restaurants and theaters.

Another part of the recommendation asserts that the Smithsonian has a “maintenance backlog of $2.5 billion.” This is incorrect.

The 2007 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that is cited in the recommendation discussed the Smithsonian’s 10-year, $250 million per year plan for facilities revitalization and maintenance. That level of funding was based on industry standards for an organization with aging buildings: $150 million per year on facilities revitalization and $100 million per year on facilities maintenance. Although the fiscal year 2010 budget gave the Smithsonian somewhat less than that amount, it has made substantial progress in renovating and repairing its physical infrastructure. There is no $2.5 billion backlog of maintenance work at the Smithsonian.”