Topeka — State senators on Wednesday saved the Kansas Arts Commission as a government agency, but arts advocates’ victory over Gov. Sam Brownback could prove short-lived because Republican Senate leaders who opposed the GOP governor’s plan expect him to veto its funding.
The Senate voted 24-13 to reject Brownback’s plan to convert the commission into a private, nonprofit group, save the state about $575,000 annually and push for more aggressive private fundraising for arts programs. His administration still would have provided $200,000 in state funds for the commission’s programs during the fiscal year beginning July 1 but wasn’t committing to continued funding into the future.
Brownback outlined the plan in his proposed budget and issued an executive reorganization order last month, saying the change would take effect July 1. But the state constitution allows one legislative chamber to kill such an order — and the Senate did that, by adopting a resolution.
Arts advocates packed the chamber’s galleries and broke into cheers and applause when the vote was announced. They’d inundated legislators with e-mails, arguing the change would cripple arts programs and cost the state federal dollars.
But Senate President Steve Morris, a Hugoton Republican who opposed Brownback’s order, said the governor warned the chamber’s leaders that he’ll use his power to veto individual budget items on the commission’s funding.
Brownback spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag wouldn’t confirm the threat, but she also didn’t rule out a veto as the governor and legislators attempt to eliminate a projected $493 million budget shortfall for the next fiscal year.
“He will continue to look for ways to streamline state government, as well as ways to restructure it, and ultimately save taxpayers money,” Jones-Sontag said. “Every option is on the table.”
Still, the commission and arts advocates savored their victory, as half of the Senate’s 32 Republicans voted against the governor’s proposal, along with all eight Democrats.
“It isn’t about the money. It’s about intelligence. It’s about our ability to reason. It’s about our ability to think, and that comes through the arts,” said Ann Garvey, a Wichita arts advocate serving on the board of the Mid-America Arts Alliance. “The Kansas Arts Commission functions extraordinarily efficiently and effectively.”
The commission has 12 members appointed by the governor, a staff of seven and a current budget of about $1.6 million, about half of which comes from state tax dollars. Most of its spending is grants to artists and arts groups.
Some Republican legislators have long questioned whether arts funding is a core function of state government, and several GOP senators said while they support arts programs, other priorities such as education, social services and prisons take precedence in tough times.
“We are really pinching pennies at this point,” said Sen. Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican. “We have cut many portions of our government.”
But opponents of Brownback’s order said the arts generate jobs and improve the quality of life in communities across the state, helping attract and keep businesses. Some advocates also worried that Kansas would phase out state funding for the arts, setting an example for other states.
Arts advocates and Brownback’s administration have debated whether the change the governor sought would have cost the state $778,000 in federal funds.
His staff contends the $200,000 in state funds — which would have flowed to the new, nonprofit Kansas Arts Foundation through the State Historical Society — would have been sufficient to preserve the federal funds. They said the foundation could have offset a drop in state funds with private fundraising.
But arts advocates have said that’s not the case. Garvey said not only would the state have lost federal funds, it would have lost about $800,000 in additional funds from her alliance, which distributes public and private dollars in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas.
She said of Brownback’s plan, “It’s so flawed, I can’t even begin to talk about it because it’s flawed on every level.”