Topeka New Kansas Arts Commission members plan to revive a project to raise private dollars for its programs only months after the agency dropped it amid a budget dispute with Gov. Sam Brownback that made Kansas the only state in the nation to eliminate its arts funding.
A plan to sell special license plates to promote the arts, more than two years in development, was close to fruition when the commission scrapped it in May, citing uncertainty about its own future. The move cut off a potential source of money for arts programs as arts advocates worried about losing state funds.
The commission has been controlled by Brownback appointees since July. New member David Lindstrom said Friday that it is pursuing the project, with the goal of raising several hundred thousand dollars.
The commission’s former chairman is skeptical, questioning whether arts advocates upset with Brownback and committed to public funding for arts program will buy the plate. But Lindstrom said the goal is to have the blue, gold and white “State of the Arts” plates, festooned with a sunflower, appearing on Kansas roads next year.
“The challenge, obviously, is to operate under a new set of rules in trying to develop advocacy for the arts,” said Lindstrom, a Johnson County commissioner and former player with professional football’s Kansas City Chiefs. “We’re very ambitious as it relates to the numbers.”
The commission had a final design for the plate to approve when its top staffer told the state Division of Vehicle’s director that the commission was dropping the project. Four days later, Brownback vetoed the commission’s entire budget; in the coming weeks he named a new chairman and replaced seven of the commission’s 12 members.
Brownback’s veto cost arts programs in Kansas nearly $2 million. His action eliminated $689,000 in state funds, and the National Endowment for the Arts and the Mid-America Arts Alliance, based in Kansas City, Mo., have cut Kansas off from nearly $1.3 million more.
Previously, Arts Commission members had seen the special license plate as a way to raise only between $12,500 and $50,000 annually. Yet they were enthusiastic about the idea in talking it up in 2008, and their proposal had broad support when legislators authorized it in 2009.
When the commission dropped the project five months ago, arts advocates had been frustrated and angry with the administration for months. The cancellation became official in a single-page letter May 24 to the Division of Vehicles, obtained by The Associated Press through an open records request.
“We were getting ready to execute it when all of this happened,” said Henry Schwaller IV, the commission’s former chairman, still a member because his term doesn’t expire until 2013. “It’s really unfortunate.”
Lindstrom and new commission Chairwoman Linda Browning Weis aren’t criticizing the old commission for dropping the project, citing the work that its members did in moving the project forward. But House Speaker Mike O’Neal, a Hutchinson Republican who supported Brownback’s efforts to have arts programs rely more heavily on private funding, found the timing “very curious.”
“I’m trying to process that and come up with a reasonable explanation as to why they would do that. I can’t,” O’Neal said. “It’s pretty hypocritical.”
Brownback, a Republican who took office in January, has argued that the arts still can flourish with private dollars and the state needs to concentrate its tax dollars in “core” functions, such as public schools, public safety and social services. Arts advocates argue that state investment is vital and creates jobs.
Schwaller, president of a Hays real estate investment firm and his local arts council, said the commission received nearly $20,000 in private funds to manufacture the plate and pay an artist for a design. He said the commission expected to make $25,000 the first year — from 500 plates at $50 each — and $12,500 in future years.
“It’s not something you fund an agency with,” he said.
However, Lindstrom and Weis believe thousands of plates could be sold. Weis, a Manhattan real estate broker with an extensive background in music and music education, said commissioner members weren’t involved in decisions ending state funding and must be “solution seekers.”
“Kansas is different. We’re inventive,” she said. “We don’t just sit around, complaining and griping about what the government doesn’t do for us.”
Schwaller said amid the budget dispute, donors to the license-plate project, upset with Brownback’s administration, sought refunds. He said about $15,000 was returned, after the plate designer was paid.
He noted the commission’s small staff would have done marketing and handled orders. On May 10, Secretary of Administration Dennis Taylor informed the agency its staff would be laid off a month later.
“We were told to wrap up the agency,” said Schwaller, a vocal critic of Brownback’s actions.