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Wisconsin Group Opposes States’ NEA Plan : Funding: Resistance to the proposal deals a blow to House Republicans. California could suffer a $3-million cut in federal support.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a blow to House Republicans, Wisconsin’s state arts council came out in opposition Monday to a proposal to radically alter federal support for the arts.

The council joined growing political opposition to the plan, which would divert 60% of the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts to states.

In Sacramento, meanwhile, the California Legislative Joint Committee on the Arts released calculations concluding that the restructuring of the NEA would produce a net cut in the state’s federal arts money of $6 million to $9 million.

Direct federal aid to the California Arts Council would be increased from $727,000 this year to $2.8 million using budget projections for future funding under the plan, according to the staff of the committee. But its chair, State Sen. Henry Mello (D-Watsonville), said California’s share of total money would be cut as much as 50% or more.

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The Republican proposal would reserve 40% of NEA money for grants to large established arts organizations. The remaining 60% would go to state agencies--triple the proportion now.

The unrelated Wisconsin and California announcements raised new questions about the controversial Republican proposal two days before a House subcommittee resumes consideration of legislative reauthorization of the NEA, which has been wracked by political controversy for more than a year.

But the chairman of the subcommittee observed Monday that the continuing swirl of concern about the endowment’s political future makes it increasingly likely that the NEA will undergo some form of restructuring this year. Rep. Pat Williams (D-Mont.) said in a telephone interview that the GOP proposal and political uncertainties facing the NEA “do seem to me to create the opportunity to consider necessary changes.”

The House subcommittee, Williams said, “has moved a little now from total defense in trying to keep the NEA alive to serious consideration of necessary changes.” He offered no specifics and said he believes it may be fall--when separate House and Senate reauthorization bills are rationalized in conference committee--before the NEA’s fate is known.

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The Wisconsin action--a unanimous vote of the five-member executive committee of the Wisconsin Arts Board in Madison--was significant because a co-sponsor of the Republican plan is Rep. Steve Gunderson (R-Wis.), the House chief deputy whip, who now must grapple with the dilemma of advocating a shift in funding that his own state arts agency opposes. Gunderson did not return calls seeking his reaction to the situation.

Gunderson’s political plight is complicated by the fact that the Missouri Arts Council--home agency of the other co-sponsor, Rep. Tom Coleman (R-Mo.)--opposed the plan May 16.

Rejection of the Coleman-Gunderson plan by the two councils appeared to create significant difficulties for advancing the proposal. The Wednesday hearing is to hear further testimony on the Republican proposal, as well as on a competing plan drawn up by a coalition of arts organizations at Williams’ behest.

Technically, the Wisconsin statement was of support for the arts organization plan, which, in turn, emphatically rejected the 60%/40% split. The strategy enabled the Wisconsin arts board to avoid opposing Gunderson directly. The Missouri Arts Council chose a similar tactic by opposing the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, which proposed the alternative in the first place--but has since backed off from it--and leaving Coleman unnamed.

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The Wisconsin action came after three members of the arts board met in Milwaukee Friday with representatives of several large cultural institutions, including the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Pabst Theater, Milwaukee Ballet and Milwaukee Symphony.

Coleman said Monday that the opposition left him undeterred. “I think the effort here by Missouri and Wisconsin obviously is to embarrass the two sponsors,” Coleman said. “I think the wagons have been circled and there is an effort (by) these agencies to get back in step with the so-called arts community.”

In Sacramento, Mello attacked the Republican proposal, which has been opposed by at least eight influential state arts councils. The California Arts Council was the first in the country to announce its opposition. “I understand the motives of Congressmen Coleman and Gunderson are good in that they are trying to find a compromise for reauthorization,” Mello said in a statement, “but this proposal has a very negative impact on California.”


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