Jerry Brown moves to modestly improve meager state arts budget

Gov. Jerry Brown sweetens his budget proposal for the state's arts grant-making agency by $5 million

Gov. Jerry Brown has gone from an arts Scrooge in January to an arts Santa Claus of sorts in May.

State tax coffers have filled faster than expected this year, and the governor’s annual “May revise” of the original spending plan he proposed in January would share a modest morsel of the wealth -- $5 million -- with the California Arts Council, the state’s arts grant-making agency.

California has long ranked at or near the bottom nationally in per capita taxpayer funding of its state arts agency. The $5-million increase from the $1.1 million in Brown's initial arts budget would push the state’s arts spending to about 24 cents for each state resident. The national per capita average is $1.09, according to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies. To reach it California would have to increase the arts council budget to $42.3 million.

But the increase to $6.1 million in state tax appropriations is significant because of the fine print, said Daniel Savage, chief of staff to Assembly member Adrin Nazarian (D-Sherman Oaks), who has pushed for better arts-grant funding over the last three years with mixed results.

Last year, Nazarian and other arts advocates went through a similar exercise with a similar bottom-line outcome: Brown started by proposing the usual $1.1 million from the general fund, then agreed to an increase to $6.1 million in the home stretch of the annual budget process. The $1.1 million commitment is the amount needed to fully qualify for matching federal funds from the National Endowment for the Arts.

But last year the governor specified that the additional $5 million was a one-time only boost. True to his word, his initial budget proposal in January cut the arts council’s allocation from the state’s tax-fed general fund back to $1.1 million.

But the improved funding in the “budget revise” Brown rolled out Thursday is different, Savage said. This time Brown has designated the additional $5 million as a “permanent funding increase” – signaling that the new baseline the arts agency can expect as its annual share of the general fund can rise from $1.1 million to $6.1 million. If state government’s financial picture doesn’t worsen, which could prompt budget-crafters to look for cuts, next year’s process would begin with the assumption that the arts council should receive at least $6.1 million in state tax revenue.

Although that’s just a few crumbs from a $117-billion loaf of projected state tax receipts, it would be a clear change from a meager status quo that has prevailed since 2004, when Gov. Gray Davis all but dismantled the arts council.

“As the arts council moves forward and can demonstrate the good work they’re doing with the [extra] $5 million, we can grow [its budget] incrementally,” Savage said.

Brown has kept an austere eye on spending as California’s post-recession tax revenue has improved. With the latest results, Savage said, “I think he’s feeling a little more confident that he can spend some of this money" and show that he does value the arts.

Brown’s generosity has its limits -- the $6.1 million is less than $10 million from the general fund that Nazarian had proposed for the arts council and helped advance through the Assembly. But with a line-item veto pen in his pocket, the governor is the most powerful player in a budgetary end game that calls for leaders of the Senate and Assembly to bargain with him to reach a spending plan he’s willing to accept.

Savage said that Nazarian will nevertheless push for a bit more money than the governor envisions -- enough for two additional employees at the arts council, whose current authorized staff roster is 17.5 positions.

“The staff was pretty taxed last year" when the additional funding came in and there were more programs and grants to oversee, Savage said.

If Brown’s May revise is enacted next month as the final arts council budget, the agency’s total spending for the fiscal year that begins July 1 would be $9.9 million, including $3.8 million from sources other than state tax coffers.

It includes the $1.1 million in federal funding, about $2.5 million in donations and about $200,000 in reimbursements for services to other state agencies. Donations include an estimated $2.2 million from California motorists who pay extra for special license plates sporting a colorful beach landscape by pop artist Wayne Thiebaud, and $250,000 from arts supporters who use a voluntary checkoff on income tax forms to contribute to the arts council’s grants to K-12 arts education.

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