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Arts Groups Ill-Served By Lack Of Reliable Funding Process

Lawmakers Remedy Rell's Budget Betrayal - In Their Own Way

May 13, 2007
By FRANK RIZZO, Courant Staff Writer

Politics has a culture all its own, and it ain't always a treasure.

After rejecting the governor's shell game (also known as the Cultural Treasures Act), legislators have remedied what could have been a dire situation for many arts groups.

The good news: Grants for the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism will increase by $5 million.

The bad news: There are more - not fewer - line items in the budget directed at arts, heritage and tourism groups that have special legislative connections. These are pork-scented appropriations directed at legislators' favorite folks, recipients who get a relatively free ride, year-in and year-out, while other organizations must compete in a systematic peer review for a small pool of grants.

But the good news first.

The pool of money the commission gives out in arts grants - including those for desperately needed assists for day-to-day operations - is $2.4 million, about the same as during the '90s. The legislative proposal - $5 million for each of the next two years - has the money targeted for arts, culture and tourism grants. So instead of all the support going to the arts, it will be shared with the agency's other divisions. Still, it's better than what the arts side has faced in the past, though it's uncertain how big that slice will be.

Sure, the money is not a dedicated annual stream of money and has to be fought for year after year. But, hey, it's a significant increase, and applause is warranted for Democratic leaders such as Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr. and others friendly to the arts.

But it's a different kind of increase for the arts compared with the supersizing that Gov. M. Jodi Rell initially proposed before last fall's elections, one that gave the illusion of historic support for the arts but actually reduced total funding when her budget was announced in February - and the election was over.

Let's return to a seemingly blissful time last August, when there were hugs all around during the governor's much-ballyhooed announcement at the New Britain Museum of American Art. It was a ceremony filled with arts leaders from across the state gushing over the governor's "cultural treasures" initiative. (Little did these arts leaders know they were going to be hit up for campaign funds soon after that. But more on that later.)

The governor's proposal seemed wondrous at first glance: She would quadruple the $2.4 million that the commission gives in competitive arts grants, and it would come from a dedicated revenue stream, not an annual appropriation, which is more likely to be cut when times are bad.

Rell initially said the increased pool of money was for arts groups exclusively, but never mind if the expanded definition of culture includes heritage organizations.

The new money, said the guv, would come from the ever-growing cable-tax revenue, creating a dedicated stream of dough to the commission. And if the cable tax didn't quite cover the full cost - $5 million the first year, $10 million for every year thereafter - money would be found in the budget, she said.

So far, so good.

In fact, it seemed so good that the initiative revived the long-dormant Connecticut Arts Alliance, which became the more cyber-active savetheartsct.org.But when the governor's budget was announced in February, Rell had axed most of the 19 line items directed at arts, heritage and tourism groups. She added a one-time appropriation of $5 million to help in the transition. But even with the new cable-tax funds in place, there would be a net loss to the arts.

Now a point that is often missed.

Proponents of a sensible arts policy are not saying those groups receiving a special line item do not deserve their funds - or at least some of them. It's just that, in a perfect world, those funds should go to the commission, where these organizations would have to justify, account for and compete for that money.

But what's the fun of being a legislator if you can't pork it up for your district?

To be fair, we must ask: Is the commission's review panel without its own wheeling and dealing and conflicts of interests? Certainly not. Doesn't a legislator know the needs of his own district best? Er, we'll get back to you on that one.

But the commission, at least, has to give its grants with more transparency than legislative deal-making.

Last year, the many-headed commission on culture and tourism came up with a proposal that would phase out the line items over a period of years while that line-item money would be transferred to the grants pool the commission gives out. But even the governor didn't follow that common-sense study.

Williams and other legislative leaders are expected to support a blue-ribbon examination of their own that their colleagues can eventually embrace, a gradual withdrawal that would be kinder, gentler and fairer than Rell's one-year-and-you're-out approach.

Some credit Rell with at least trying to get a fresh revenue stream for the arts, but her leadership - not to mention her credibility - suffered when her budget came out showing the net effect to the arts was less money, not more.

"Arts organizations were led to believe there was a boon in the offing," Mary Lou Aleskie, executive director of New Haven's International Festival of Arts & Ideas, said of the governor's proposal. "But any increase would come at the expense of the earmarks."

The festival, now in its 12th year, receives $1 million in a line item. Aleskie says that without that level of state funding, the festival's programming - especially the free events - would be in jeopardy.

"The understanding when we opened [in 2004] was there would be a continued level of support during our early days," says Frank Tavera, executive director of the Palace Theater in Waterbury. The $810,000 in its line item helps protect the $30 million that the state has invested in the Palace, whose renovation was part of an revival of downtown Waterbury, says Tavera. Because of the funding, Tavera adds, the presenting house has shown modest surpluses.

Point taken, say legislators, who are left to straighten out the mess. Now those line items were beginning to be reinstated.

Then something else happened.

In the panic following the governor's budget announcement, other groups started lobbying for line items of their own. Soon, the list of me-too organizations started to grow. Who could blame them when state arts policy seemed to be all over the map?

And what signal is being given when the governor doesn't think the commission important enough to name a permanent successor to Jennifer Aniskovich, who was dumped as director five months ago - during a crucial time when Rell's "historic" initiative was being debated and budget negotiations were going on?

That lack of leadership was a factor in Rell's "cultural treasures" bill being rejected, says Sen. Toni Harp, D-New Haven. The $5 million boost the legislators propose giving to the commission in grants money will show pols "how the commission will handle more money," says Harp.

You can also understand why legislators aren't particularly eager to abdicate their fiscal prerogative to a commission without a permanent director.

At the time of Aniskovich's ouster, it was believed the governor simply wanted a change in leadership among the state's various commissions. Another theory for Aniskovich's removal - that she is married to someone who might be a Republican rival to Rell - now looks less valid.

Perhaps her removal was simply political punishment for when Aniskovich initially balked at giving the governor's chief of staff, M. Lisa Moody, the database of addresses of arts leaders for the governor's fundraising purposes. Though the list is public record, the solicitation call from Rell's office just doesn't pass the smell test.

What did those arts leaders who may have contributed to the governor's campaign in October think in February when that touted arts windfall appeared to be an illusion?

Is there a Governor's Arts Award for chutzpah?

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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