Kansas governor eliminates state’s arts funding


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While many Americans on Saturday were enjoying the start of the Memorial Day weekend, Kansans were gaining the dubious distinction of becoming the nation’s only citizens to live in a state without an arts agency.

Republican Gov. Sam Brownback took the major step of privatizing the arts in Kansas, turning back the clock to a pre-1960s era. The governor erased state funding for arts programs, leaving the Kansas Arts Commission with no budget, no staff and no offices.


The commission was founded in 1966, a year after Congress established the National Endowment for the Arts.

Federal and state arts funding has been a prime Republican target since the 1980s, when the Reagan Administration began to advocate for privatizing public services. In addition to state arts agencies, those services include the NEA, Social Security, Medicare, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Environmental Protection Agency. Brownback used his power to veto just a handful of individual budget items in the $13.8-billion spending bill, according to the Associated Press.

In the past, Brownback’s administration has used Vermont as an example of a state that has successfully privatized arts funding. However, Vermont Arts Council Executive Director Alexander L. Aldrich last week issued an open letter to the Kansas governor to sharply refute those claims.

‘Every State SHOULD invest in the arts sector simply because it makes good economic sense,’ Aldrich wrote. Vermont saw a whopping return of 775% on its annual arts investment last year.

A competing letter advocating the cut came from the local branch of Americans for Prosperity, the anti-tax group started by billionaire oilman David Koch, whose Koch Industries is based in Wichita. Inexplicably, the letter took a market-based approach to the subject of a not-for-profit economy.

‘[No one] should be compelled to have part of their tax bill fund the tastes of those on an arts commission,’ wrote state AFP director Derrick Sontag. ‘Art is in the eye of the beholder. Some may enjoy Picasso or listening to Beethoven. Others may prefer a Dogs Playing Poker painting.’


Americans for the Arts, which lobbies in Washington for the nonprofit sector, issued a statement Saturday criticizing the move and saying that Kansas’ nonprofit arts and culture organizations support 4,612 full-time equivalent jobs. Together they generate $95.1 million in household income to local residents and deliver $15.6 million in local and state government revenue.

The future of many of those jobs is now in limbo. Kansas’ seasonally adjusted unemployment rate stands at 6.7% -- 2 points higher than the rate at the September 2008 start of the nation’s economic crisis. Brownback’s 2010 race for the governship was based on local job creation.

As a result of the governor’s action, Kansas will also forfeit a likely matching grant of nearly $800,000 from the NEA next year, plus more than $400,000 from the Mid-America Arts Alliance. Those combined funds are nearly double the arts appropriation that had been recommended by the Kansas Legislature, which Brownback nixed. The state projects a $500-million budget shortfall next year.

This month a Topeka newspaper reported that House Republican budget negotiators had backed away from their chamber’s endorsement of Brownback’s plan to privatize the commission. The Senate rejected Brownback’s plan outright, supporting $689,000 for the commission in the next state budget. That figure, now penciled out, already represented a 14% cut from the agency’s current allotment.

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-- Christopher Knight