Culture gets the axe

Everyone knows the state purse strings are tight; still, state arts-and-culture advocates were taken aback late last week when the House of Representatives’ proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning in July recommended cutting the Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC) budget 18 percent.

At $7.5 million, funding for the main state-sponsored entity providing grants for everything from local cultural organizers to student arts programs would be more than 40 percent lower than just two years ago.

“I was hoping for a level-funding situation,” matching the $9.1 million the MCC received for the 2011 fiscal year, says Sarah Peake, representative from Provincetown and new House chair of the Committee on Tourism, Arts, and Cultural Development. “Worst case, Governor [Deval Patrick]’s funding proposal,” of $8.4 million.

Even steeper cutsfrom $4 million to just $1 million — hit the regional tourism councils, which promote the state’s cultural and arts attractions. Peake had requested an increase to $6 million for those, partly because the number of councils recently increased, from 13 to 16, but also because of the acknowledged economic importance of tourism marketing. The leisure and hospitality industry has led the state’s employment growth during the recovery — in March, it contributed 2100 new jobs, while the state as a whole gained 3200, according to data from the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development.

Advocates in the arts-and-culture community, and legislators on Beacon Hill, say they were surprised by the cuts — many felt that they had a sympathetic ear in Brian Dempsey of Haverhill, the new House Ways and Means chair — and are concerned that it could force the ending of programs, and the closing of offices, that will take years to reverse.

“These are very severe cuts,” says Anita Walker, MCC’s executive director. “The legislature has a very difficult job, we do understand that. But we have to look at an economic growth strategy, and this is the sector that has the greatest opportunity for growth.”

The cuts sent advocates scrambling to react, in hopes of reversing the damage when the full House debates the budget, beginning next week.

Peake has submitted an amendment to restore MCC’s funding to last year’s $9.1 million level. So far, 45 of the 160 members have signed on — a strong showing, but not a level suggesting the blessing of top leadership, including Speaker Bob DeLeo.

Only six Boston representatives have co-signed the amendment: Nick Collins, Linda Dorcena Forry, Gloria Fox, Byron Rushing, Jeffrey Sanchez, and Marty Walsh. Carl Sciortino of Somerville, Alice Wolf of Cambridge, and Frank Smizik of Brookline have also signed on. Nine Boston members — including Marty Walz, who is vice-chair of the Ways and Means Committee — are missing from that list.

Still, the quick signatures of more than a quarter of the membership — far more than most budget amendments get — suggests a high level of support for higher funding. Advocates say that most representatives agree not only with the public good of arts and culture, but the economic benefits that more than repay for the expenditures. Studies have shown that the state receives five dollars in benefits for every dollar spent by the MCC.

That’s why the cuts took many by surprise, even given the extremely difficult revenue situation, which is being called the worst of this economic downturn, due to the end of federal stimulus funding.

Neither Dempsey or Walz were available for comment about the funding levels.

Some are speculating that there may be more at work than just the $1.5 million budget gap. They suggest that in the past, House leadership has low-balled funding for arts, culture, and tourism, to use as a bargaining chip during the budget-negotiation process — and may be doing the same thing again.

That could include bargaining with House members, whom DeLeo is asking to take some tough upcoming votes on municipal-union bargaining, probation and parole reorganization, and casinos. Or, DeLeo may be looking toward budget reconciliation with the Senate, where cultural funding is popular — particularly with Senate President Therese Murray, who represents heavily tourist-dependent Plymouth. Stephen Brewer of Barre, who became Ways and Means chair this year, is also considered friendly to the cause — in part because his district includes Sturbridge.

That Senate support has some cautiously optimistic that, even if the final House budget keeps the cuts in place, there may be more luck in the Senate, which will work on its version next.

That may not be the fight Senate leadership wants to pick, however. Stanley Rosenberg of Amherst, president pro tempore of the Senate, says that other vital service areas are also asking for more money. “We’re all dealing with the same billion-and-a-half-dollar problem,” he says, referring to the projected budget gap for fiscal year 2012.

Rosenberg also says that arts-and-culture line items were cut even more severely during previous recessions. “You have to put this into perspective,” he says. “I’m optimistic that we’ll rebuild the budget [for arts and culture], but I’m not sure we’ll do it this year.”

He adds that the Cultural Facilities Fund, which as a capital-expenditure item is controlled off-budget by Patrick, has become arguably a more important source for the arts community. Patrick has not yet indicated how much money he will slate for that in the coming fiscal year.

The new Senate chair of that committee, Eileen Donoghue of Lowell, has lobbied Brewer to preserve level funding in the Senate’s budget. “I was certainly disappointed to see the House numbers,” she says. “We’ve had a fair amount of experience in Lowell — we know it’s an economic generator.”

Sonia Chang-Díaz of Jamaica Plain, who sits on the Tourism, Arts, and Cultural Development Committee after chairing it last session, says that she intends to join the push for more funding, and adds that public pressure on Beacon Hill will be critical to that effort.

 On that point, culture advocates agree. The MCC and its allies hope to rally the public to contact their representatives next week in support of Peake’s amendment — and then, win or lose in that battle, turn the pressure on their senators next.
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