National Endowment sails stormy seas

April 20, 2011

The unexpectedly chilly winds of April weren't enough to blow down the National Endowment for the Arts, even though some members of Congress wanted to pour cold Tea Party on it. Much to the surprise of many arts advocates, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) emerged from the harrowing House of Representatives budget process with $155 million for Fiscal Year 2011. This is considerably more than pro-NEA partisans could have imagined just a few months ago, when the Republican-controlled House entertained various proposals for the NEA ranging from deep cuts to zero funding (a Congressional euphemism for murdering an agency). The zero funding option immediately was rejected even by the GOP majority as too extreme. The NEA funding was part of the very tough negotiating process between President Obama and House and Senate leaders over the total 2011 budget. The Senate quickly approved the House-passed appropriations package.

The $155 million budget represents a cut of $12.5 million (7.5%) over FY2010 funding of $167.5 million. Just months earlier, the House had settled on only $124.4 million for the NEA. The House also had stripped all funding for Arts in Education programs from the proposed appropriation for the federal Department of Education; however the final 2011 budget measure restored a modest $25.5 million for Arts in Education.

I have a colleague (well, a cousin, actually) who happens to be the chief political officer for a highly-visible federal agency, and he explained it to me in a recent conversation: "President Obama told the House Republicans, 'Look, we can talk about some of the big budget cuts you want, but keep your hands off the little programs. You're not going to save significant money by nickel-and-diming the small stuff.'" My cousin's agency, still considered small at under $1 billion, also survived with most of its funding intact. It probably doesn't hurt, either, that by Federal mandate the NEA must pass along 50% of its funding to state arts agencies and councils (such as the Illinois Arts Council), and House Republicans are aware of how badly the states are hurting.

Of course, we already are half-way through Fiscal 2011 and the even tougher budget battle over Fiscal 2012 has begun.

FYI: the Illinois Arts Council (IAC) generally receives a block grant in the vicinity of $500,000 each year from the NEA. That half-million bucks has loomed much larger in recent years with the draconian slashes in state funding for the IAC, which fell from $19.4 million in Fiscal 2007, to $14.2 million is Fiscal 2008 (when the economic collapse began), to flat funding in Fiscal 2009 and then down to an operating budget of just $7.5 million in Fiscal 2010. For Fiscal 2011, the IAC budget was finalized at $8.5 million (NOTE: on paper the budget is $9.3 million, which includes various pass-throughs, but the operating budget is $8.5 million). For Fiscal 2012, which begins July 1, Gov. Patrick Quinn has proposed a $2.1 million increase for the IAC to $11.4 million (including those pass-throughs), but the actual appropriations legislation may be another story. As is usually the case, the final budget won't materialize until months after Fiscal 2012 begins. With a $1.5 billion state budget gap (and that's conservative), every budget proposal is on the chopping block.