Topeka A Senate committee on Thursday rejected Gov. Sam Brownback’s attempt to abolish the Kansas Arts Commission.
The Federal and State Affairs Committee voted against Brownback’s order before a packed hearing room that included about 20 high school students from Lawrence.
Keil Eggers, a senior at Free State High School, said he made the trip to the Capitol because he wanted the Arts Commission funded so that “kids behind me would have the same opportunities” in arts programs that he had.
Jonas Upman, a senior at Lawrence High School, said the students spontaneously decided to come to Topeka to show their support of the Arts Commission.
“Everyone should have an equal opportunity to pursue becoming an artist,” he said.
The students, who arranged with their teachers to make the trip, briefly demonstrated and carried signs outside the Statehouse before the meeting.
Brownback issued an executive reorganization order that would abolish the Arts Commission, transition some of its duties to the Kansas State Historical Society, and have a nonprofit foundation raise money for the arts.
Brownback has said the move is needed to save state funds in the face of a nearly $500 million revenue shortfall in the fiscal year that starts July 1. The Arts Commission receives about $800,000 per year. Brownback has said he believes the nonprofit foundation will be able to raise more money through private donations.
Several people whom Brownback appointed to the foundation agreed with the governor.
Robert Swain, an artist from Topeka, said when the Topeka City Council decided several years ago to stop funding the Arts Council of Topeka, private groups, such as ARTSConnect, stepped in and now Topeka is experiencing an arts renaissance that is getting nationwide buzz.
But moments after his testimony, Kathy Smith, executive director of ARTSConnect, testified that it received a portion of its funding from the Kansas Arts Commission. “Without the support of the Kansas Arts Commission, our work over the past few years would not have been possible,” she said.
Other opponents of disbanding the state Arts Commission said the move would jeopardize more than $1 million in matching funds from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Mid America Arts Alliance.
State Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City, said the Arts Commission had proved itself to be able to attract federal dollars to use statewide in arts projects. Brownback’s idea, he said, was unproved.
But Sen. Ralph Ostmeyer, R-Grinnell, said that while he supported the arts, the state was looking at a substantial budget shortfall. Ostmeyer also said he feared that if the Legislature rejected Brownback’s proposal, Brownback would simply line-item veto funding for the Arts Commission in the budget bill.
When asked if Brownback would do that, Brownback’s policy director, Landon Fulmer, said he didn’t want to comment.
In outlining the governor’s case, Fulmer told the committee that the Arts Commission’s administrative expenses were too high. “Right now, the Arts Commission’s total funding is about 38 percent overhead,” he said. “This isn’t good.”
But Henry Schwaller, chairman of the Kansas Arts Commission, said much of that overhead expense was for professional development and consulting to help other arts organizations.
Brownback’s order will take effect July 1 unless the Legislature rejects it. The committee’s recommendation to keep the Arts Commission will next go to the full Senate.
After the hearing, the Lawrence students said they were pleased with the decision by the committee.
“Art is an essential part of life,” said Hazlett Henderson, a sophomore at Lawrence High School. “I don’t know if private funding will be there.”
Kelly Song, also a sophomore at Lawrence High, said she was concerned about whether the foundation could raise the amount of funds that the Arts Commission does.