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Bill to boost state arts funding is put on hold until next year

May 29, 2009 |  6:42 am

CaliforniaArtsPlate It's "wait till next year" -- again -- for a bill in the state Legislature that would have provided a boost of about $30 million a year for the California Arts Council and raised the state's per-capita arts funding from last in the nation to the middle of the pack.

The bill, entitled the "Creative Industries and Community Economic Revitalization Act," was put on hold until 2010 on Thursday in the Assembly's Appropriations Committee. Two earlier bills to increase arts funding had died in committees since 2005. Numbered AB 700, this one calls for one-fifth of the state sales taxes collected from arts-related businesses such as art galleries, record shops and musical instrument stores to be reserved for the state arts council's grants to nonprofit arts organizations.

With California facing deficits of more than $20 billion and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposing cuts to healthcare, social services and education, backers of the arts funding bill took a page out of Shakespeare and decided that discretion would be the better part of valor on a day when the Appropriations Committee was killing many other spending bills.

Paul Krekorian (D-Burbank), the arts bill's sponsor, said he requested, and committee Chairman Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles) agreed, that the proposal be held over for a decision next year.

"It was clear that had the bill moved forward today, it would have been killed," Krekorian said. "We continue to live to fight another day.... You can't overstate how gruesome this budget crisis is right now."

Krekorian thinks his fellow legislators will buy the bill's main selling point: that money spent on the arts would lead to job creation and economic growth. That argument succeeded on the federal level this year when Congress approved $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts as part of the huge economic stimulus package aimed at saving jobs. Whether the state is out of its deep fiscal tunnel next year -- or at least seeing the light at the tunnel's end -- will determine whether AB 700 has a chance of passing then, Krekorian said. The bill does not call for new taxes or spending, but it does earmark money for the arts that otherwise would go into general fund coffers whose use is flexible.

The California Taxpayers' Assn. opposes the bill and will continue to do so, spokesman David Kline said -- not because of antipathy for arts funding, but because it doesn't want more revenue tagged for a restricted, predetermined use. As the state tries to unravel its fiscal problems, he said, "it's especially important not to tie your hands for the future."

The question now may be whether arts advocates need to worry about hanging on to the $1.1 million a year the arts council currently receives from the general fund -- an amount needed to secure a matching $1 million from the NEA. Schwarzenegger already has called for slashing other state programs even though that would mean losing billions in matching federal money.

PaulKrekorian "The arts council already has experienced more than its share of cuts and we rank last in the country," Krekorian said, and cutting further makes no sense, "unless you want to make the decision that we should be out of the business of supporting the arts altogether. I hope not.... But we are in uncharted territory now."

In fact, the arts council, which early this decade had a budget of more than $30 million, already is pretty much a charity case: More than half of its $5.4-million budget comes from voluntary fees that arts-loving motorists pay for special vanity license plates whose proceeds are partly funneled to the arts council. The state spends 15 cents per capita on its arts agency, one-ninth  the national average of $1.35 calculated by the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies

-- Mike Boehm

Photos, from top: Arts-supporter license plate. Credit: California Arts Council. California Assembly member Paul Krekorian (facing camera). Credit: Robert Durrell / Los Angeles Times