Mitt Romney would cut federal cultural agencies by half

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In the race for the Republican presidential nomination, critics of Mitt Romney have complained that conservative stances he’s taking now contradict his policies as Massachusetts governor from 2003 through 2006. But when it comes to cultural funding, the differences are a matter of degree rather than a sharp reversal.

Earlier this month, candidate Romney (pictured at left, above, while debating opponent Rick Perry) targeted two federal arts and cultural grantmaking agencies, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, for “deep reductions.”


In an op-ed piece in USA Today, Romney said he would “eliminate every government program that is not absolutely essential [because] the federal government should stop doing things we don’t need or can’t afford,” then gave five examples. Four examples clearly cited programs or funding categories to be eliminated; the fifth was “enact deep reductions in the subsidies for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Legal Services Corporation.”

We asked the Romney campaign for clarification — does he want to eliminate cultural grantmaking or reduce it? The response was that he doesn’t want to eliminate the NEA, NEH or the two other agencies but would cut their aggregate funding by half. The NEA and NEH now receive $155 million per year each — among the smallest agency appropriations in the federal budget. Earlier this year, a majority of Republican House members called for eliminating them.

As Massachusetts governor, Romney tried to restrain but not eliminate arts spending. He did not succeed: The state Legislature voted additional money each year, lifting the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s budget from $7.3 million to $12.1 million during his term. Romney’s own proposals had called for keeping the arts budget at $7.3 million — the funding level when he took office.

The most important arts legislation during Romney’s tenure was the 2006 creation of a Cultural Facilities Fund, which provides for annual grants to help nonprofit arts, historical and scientific organizations pay for construction projects. Romney vetoed the fund, but the Legislature overrode him. Since then, the state has granted $37 million under the program, according to Greg Liakos, spokesman for the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

Presidential candidate Rick Perry’s hand on the cultural purse strings as governor of Texas since 2001 is harder to judge, because under the Texas system the governor has little authority over the budget. Texas budgeting takes place not annually but in two-year chunks, and Perry’s tenure has seen the budget for the Texas Commission on the Arts trend consistently downward, from $8.7 million in 2002 to $3.9 million for 2012.

In February, Perry said in his state of the state address that cultural spending was a luxury Texas couldn’t afford, given its projected $27-billion deficit: “Let’s suspend non-mission-critical entities like the Historical Commission or the Commission on the Arts until the economy improves.”


But both entities are being funded under the adopted state budget, albeit with substantial cuts. Under the Texas system, said John Barton, spokesman for the state’s Legislative Budget Board, the Legislature proposes and passes a budget; the governor can respond by vetoing line items. In the case of the Arts Commission, Perry did not try to back up his February proposal by vetoing the $3.9-million appropriation. The Times asked the Perry campaign Thursday what he’d propose as president for the NEA and the NEH; its written response was not specific, saying ‘Gov. Perry believes that all federal government programs ought to be thoroughly examined,’ with an eye toward ‘ending the out-of-control spending and business as usual big government.’

The Americans for the Arts Action Fund, which lobbies for arts-friendly federal policies and supports congressional and presidential candidates who favor them, emailed an appeal this week to its 200,000 newsletter subscribers, citing Romney’s call for “deep reductions” as a reason to donate to its campaign fund and get out its message that federal arts funding is a wise investment that helps foster jobs and pays dividends for the economy as a whole.

The Action Fund’s goal is to raise $150,000, targeted at 2012 congressional races, said its executive director, Nina Ozlu Tunceli, nearly doubling the $77,500 it gave candidates during the 2008 election cycle. Ozlu Tunceli said that neither presidential campaign received money in 2008 because Barack Obama refused contributions from political action committees and John McCain wasn’t deemed friendly toward the arts. She anticipates Obama will decline PAC contributions in 2012 and that the Republican nominee won’t favor preserving or increasing arts budgets, leaving her group to again funnel all its political money to congressional races.

The Arts Action Fund has scheduled a candidates’ forum Wednesday at Iowa’s Coralville Center for the Performing Arts, aiming to get the GOP contenders or their surrogates to spell out their plans for the arts.

Ozlu Tunceli said Ron Paul of Texas and Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, the two current House members in the race, each received an ‘F’ on the Arts Action Fund’s most recent report card grading Congressional voting records. Bachmann got a zero; Paul earned six points out of 100 for supporting unsuccessful legislation that would have allowed visual artists to take a much bigger tax deduction when they donate works to museums and other charities, writing off a work’s market value rather than the cost of the materials used.


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— Mike Boehm