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Annette Bening to star in push for tax-form donations to arts ed

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Annette Bening has taken on what some might consider the most challenging role of any actor's career: persuading Californians to send the tax collector more money.

The California Arts Council -- the government agency that oversees the state’s arts grant program -- announced Wednesday that Bening will be the spokeswoman for its latest effort to boost its meager budget, with the extra money earmarked for arts education.

A bill passed last year places a special checkoff box on state income tax forms, labeled the “Keep Arts in Schools Fund.” Taxpayers can voluntarily check the box and write in how much they’d like to add to their tax payment or subtract from their refund, resulting in a heftier payment or a lighter reimbursement.

The Franchise Tax Board, which collects tax receipts, will funnel the checkoff money to the arts council to help it boost arts-education efforts that include programs that hire artists to teach in public schools.

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Bening, who served as an unpaid appointee to the arts council from 2004 through 2007, will be featured in advertising and other promotional efforts to get taxpayers on board.

The arts council is trying to recruit donors who’ll pay for those ads, which aim to put Bening’s face before the public  alongside slogans such as “Join Annette Bening in bringing creativity back to the classroom! Make a difference through your state tax return.”

A previous tax form checkoff for state arts funding proved unpopular. Failing to raise the $250,000 per year required to keep its place on the returns, it was deleted from the forms Californians submitted last year to pay taxes on their 2012 earnings.

Now the checkoff is back, but with a big difference in how it's labeled. Arts advocates believe that “Keep Arts in Schools Fund” will be far more appealing to philanthropic instincts than the previous designation, "Arts Council Fund” -- a moniker far more likely to elicit a “What’s that?” than a "Count me in!"

Bening's four-year hitch on the arts council -- she was appointed by the state Senate’s then-leader, John Burton -- came as it got used to being at the bottom in national rankings of states’ per capita funding of their government arts-grant agencies. Two consecutive years of cutting by Gov. Gray Davis and the Legislature reduced the arts council's budget to $3.1 million starting in mid-2003, down from $32 million in mid-2001.

Subsequent governors and Legislatures have left the state's fiscal commitment unchanged -- about $1 million a year in state tax revenues, supplemented by an approximately matching amount from federal taxpayers via the National Endowment for the Arts. 

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The arts council has been left to appeal to Californians’ charitable instincts for the bulk of its budget, which comes mainly from special arts-supporter license plates that were introduced in 1994.

Legislation passed during 2004 boosted the cost of the arts-supporter plates, allowing the donated proceeds to rise from less than $1 million a year to the current budgeted level of almost $3 million.  The plates sport an image of palm trees at sunset, designed by artist Wayne Thiebaud.

The arts council’s promotional efforts for the voluntary license plates have included a campaign on electronic billboards in 2012 that featured some of California’s star creative types -- among them Bening, Robert Redford, Frank Gehry, Debbie Allen, Ed Ruscha and Russell Simmons.

With the license plate funds, budgets have totaled about $5 million a year, although for the current 2013-14 fiscal year the arts council received about $7 million, the boost coming from a one-time special allocation of $2 million from Assembly Speaker John Perez, who dipped into a discretionary fund that’s at his sole disposal.

An ambitious bill that would have committed the state to providing at least $75 million a year in taxpayer-funded arts grants failed last year. It was pegged at about $2 per resident, enough to approach the top 10 in per capita state rankings. 

Gov. Jerry Brown’s recently released budget proposal for 2014-15 would return the arts council to the $5-million level. Brad Erickson, president of the California Arts Advocates lobbying group, said last week that advocates will try to make a case in Sacramento for a tax-funded appropriation in the $10-million to $25-million range, not counting  donations via the arts license plates and tax-form checkoff.

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