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Big state arts funding bill falters, so backers lower the ante

A bill in Sacramento that would have decisively erased California’s longstanding dubious distinction as the stingiest state in the nation for arts-grant funding has failed for now. Some backers hope it might be revived next year.

The bill would have secured $75 million in guaranteed annual funding for the California Arts Council but was frozen last week without a vote. Now advocates aim to persuade legislators and Gov. Jerry Brown to give the agency at least a modest increase as they determine the state budget for the coming fiscal year.

The arts council’s budget, now $5.5 million, peaked at $32 million in mid-2000. It was cut nearly in half over the next two years, then all but eliminated in 2003 as the economy fell into a recession. Since then the arts council has received $1 million a year from state tax coffers.

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The cuts a decade ago gave California a lock on 50th place in the nation in per capita funding for its state arts agency. It briefly moved up to 49th in 2011, when Kansas temporarily eliminated all arts funding.

The $75-million bill aimed to lift California’s arts-grant funding to about $2 per capita in a state whose population the U.S. Census Bureau estimates at about 38 million. That’s a level currently provided by 10 states, topped by Minnesota ($5.88), Hawaii ($4.19) and Wyoming ($3.57), according to figures compiled by the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies.

It has been left to California motorists to voluntarily shoulder most of the Arts Council’s budget. By paying $50 extra for special arts-funding license plates ($40 for renewals), they collectively donate about $3 million a year. The National Endowment for the Arts will provide just more than $1 million this year, down $68,000 because of “budget sequestration” cuts in Washington.

California‘s arts-grant budget, including the license plate donations and the federal money, comes to 14 cents per capita, ranking it 1 cent behind Texas and 2 behind Georgia.

Like previous bills to boost arts-grant funding, the $75-million bid, AB 580, was not voted down but shunted aside. Legislative leaders placed it “on suspense” last week in the Assembly’s appropriations committee, meaning it can’t be acted on for the rest of the current session. Brad Erickson, president of the advocacy group Californians for the Arts, said there will be a brief window early next year when it could be possible to resuscitate the bill by persuading Assembly Speaker John Pérez and the appropriations committee’s leadership to bring it up for a hearing and a vote.

For now, arts advocates and Assemblyman Adrin Nazarian (D-Sherman Oaks), who sponsored the bill, are focusing on the endgame of this year’s budget deliberations, which are expected to culminate by July 1, when the next fiscal year begins.

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“A modest increase is the reality of what we could be able to get this year,” said Erickson, also executive director of Theatre Bay Area, a service organization for that region’s nonprofit theaters. Despite indications that state coffers are coming back from recession depths, he said, “what we’re hearing all around is that money is still tight. Given the environment, any increase would be a huge victory.”

Realizing that his bill’s prospects were dim, Nazarian last week arranged for the Assembly budget subcommittee, whose jurisdiction includes the arts council, to hear a presentation on the agency's work – and what a funding increase might mean – from Craig Watson, the arts council’s director.

“My intention is to keep the conversation alive and use every different avenue” to produce an improved arts-grant budget now that the royal road of a guaranteed-funding bill has been blocked, Nazarian said.

He said he plans to approach key players – among them Pérez, as well as Bob Blumenfield and Mark Leno, the latter two the chairmen, respectively, of the Assembly and Senate budget committees, in hopes of making a case for giving the arts council a boost.

The final say would rest with Brown, who has the power to reduce or eliminate budget items. The governor's own budget proposal for the arts council calls for a $44,000 increase in the state’s tax-funded contributions but an overall cut of $317,000, primarily because one small source of donations has vanished.

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A checkoff box on state tax returns that taxpayers could use to give money to the arts council was discontinued this year because it had failed to generate the minimum donations needed to keep its place. A bill to restore the tax checkoff next year, sponsored by Sen. Curren Price (D-Los Angeles), still has a chance – it recently passed the Senate appropriations committee by a 6-0 vote. Price was elected last month to the Los Angeles City Council and will start his term there July 1. The new checkoff box would ditch the bland old bureaucratic label -- Arts Council Fund, which Watson said had little appeal -- in favor of a more urgent one, the Keep Arts in Schools Fund.

Meanwhile, Erickson and other arts advocates have some strategizing to do, including the timing of tactics such as calling in celebrites to lobby for additional funding. Erickson said the question is whether to play such cards now, in the bid for a smaller, one-time budget hike, or hold back until next year for a push on the bill that would generate ongoing, guaranteed arts-grant funding.

Arts advocates also will try to give today’s legislators a history lesson in how and why the California Arts Council was turned into a budgetary stepchild 10 years ago, Erickson said. He recalled having just begun as executive director of Theatre Bay Area when budget deliberations came to a peak in the summer of 2003. With the economy in recession, then-Gov. Gray Davis and the top four legislative leaders considered eliminating the agency entirely, he said, then slashed its funding more than 90%.

Erickson said the move was widely seen not as a reasoned policy decision but as a personal vendetta against Barry Hessenius, who was then the California Arts Council’s director.

“I adore [Hessenius] but he can be a little undiplomatic at times. He had made some personal enemies who were in power,” Erickson said.

As today’s legislators consider how to fund the arts council, Erickson said, he hopes to dissolve any notion that “it was cut because it must have been an ineffectual, wasteful agency. They need to know that this huge cut was not based on the merit of the agency. It was for other reasons.”

ALSO:

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