License to gain more funding for arts

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Times Staff Writer

Trolling for dollars is the game of the moment for legislators hoping to nourish the cash-starved California Arts Council, reduced by the state’s chronic fiscal woes to the worst-funded state arts agency, per capita, in the nation.

One ambitious bill failed earlier this month, but now comes state Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) with a more modest proposal that the arts council expects would net it an additional $1 million or so -- mere crumbs from the $82 billion loaf of state government but no piddling sum to a grant-making agency that has seen its funding cut over the last four years from more than $30 million to $3.2 million.

Speier aims to correct what she sees as a “bait and switch” being pulled on some of the motorists who shell out for special pictorial license plates that raise money for the arts council. Under existing law, she said, more money from the purchase of arts plates went to state environmental departments last year than to the arts council. That, said Steve Haskins, a spokesman for the Department of Motor Vehicles, is because when motorists choose vanity plates, arts or otherwise, the greatest share goes to a special fund for state environmental agencies under a policy the Legislature established in 1970.


Noting that lawmakers have since exempted certain other cause-oriented license plates from sharing a cut with the environment, Speier thinks the arts deserve the same break.

“There’s extensive support for the arts council,” she said this week. “I think everyone in the Legislature appreciates it’s been decimated.”

Her bill has passed the state Senate’s transportation and housing committee and faces a hearing Monday before the appropriations committee.

The arts council’s take from license plates came to $865,000 in 2003-04 and is budgeted at $902,000 this fiscal year. Keeping all the vanity plate money would roughly double that amount, according to Mary Beth Barber, the arts council’s spokeswoman.

A flow of additional dollars may be coming in right now: On Jan. 1, the cost of arts license plates went up by $20 for new ones and $25 for renewals, because of a new law, introduced by Sen. Jack Scott (D-Altadena), aimed at relieving the arts funding crunch. New arts plates with vanity numbers now cost $90, while those with regular numbers cost $50; renewals are $65 for vanity plates and $40 for standard-issue ones.

Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) failed to land a big one for the arts council earlier this month when he was forced to withdraw an ambitious bill that would have guaranteed $23 million a year for the agency by levying a 1% surcharge on all arts and entertainment tickets. Faced with business opposition, a divided nonprofit arts sector (some of whom wanted the charge levied on for-profit events but not their own) and his fellow lawmakers’ general aversion to tax increases (not to mention the governor’s), Leno decided to retool his proposal in hopes of introducing it again next year with, he hopes, a more solid base of support.