In the race for the Republican presidential nomination, critics of Mitt Romney have complained that conservative stances he’s taking now contradict his policies as Massachusetts governor from 2003 through 2006. But when it comes to cultural funding, the differences are a matter of degree rather than a sharp reversal.
Earlier this month, candidate Romney (pictured at left, above, while debating opponent Rick Perry) targeted two federal arts and cultural grantmaking agencies, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, for “deep reductions.”
In an op-ed piece in USA Today, Romney said he would “eliminate every government program that is not absolutely essential [because] the federal government should stop doing things we don’t need or can’t afford,” then gave five examples. Four examples clearly cited programs or funding categories to be eliminated; the fifth was “enact deep reductions in the subsidies for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Legal Services Corporation.”
We asked the Romney campaign for clarification — does he want to eliminate cultural grantmaking or reduce it? The response was that he doesn’t want to eliminate the NEA, NEH or the two other agencies but would cut their aggregate funding by half. The NEA and NEH now receive $155 million per year each — among the smallest agency appropriations in the federal budget. Earlier this year, a majority of Republican House members called for eliminating them.
As Massachusetts governor, Romney tried to restrain but not eliminate arts spending. He did not succeed: The state Legislature voted additional money each year, lifting the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s budget from $7.3 million to $12.1 million during his term. Romney’s own proposals had called for keeping the arts budget at $7.3 million — the funding level when he took office.
The most important arts legislation during Romney’s tenure was the 2006 creation of a Cultural Facilities Fund, which provides for annual grants to help nonprofit arts, historical and scientific organizations pay for construction projects. Romney vetoed the fund, but the Legislature overrode him. Since then, the state has granted $37 million under the program, according to Greg Liakos, spokesman for the Massachusetts Cultural Council.
Presidential candidate Rick Perry’s hand on the cultural purse strings as governor of Texas since 2001 is harder to judge, because under the Texas system the governor has little authority over the budget. Texas budgeting takes place not annually but in two-year chunks, and Perry’s tenure has seen the budget for the Texas Commission on the Arts trend consistently downward, from $8.7 million in 2002 to $3.9 million for 2012.
In February, Perry said in his state of the state address that cultural spending was a luxury Texas couldn’t afford, given its projected $27-billion deficit: “Let’s suspend non-mission-critical entities like the Historical Commission or the Commission on the Arts until the economy improves.”