Workers brace for demise of Kansas Arts Commission

TOPEKA — Employees of the Kansas Arts Commission are culling its files, looking for documents to save for the state's historical archives. They expect their agency to be history soon, having been notified by Gov. Sam Brownback's administration that all five of them will be laid off June 10.

Legislators have defied Brownback's call to eliminate the commission and replace it with a private, nonprofit group, and arts advocates have sent hundreds of e-mails to state officials. Before lawmakers finished their annual session, they included money for the commission in the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Brownback can kill the Arts Commission by using his power to veto individual spending items. The agency's only real hope is that arts advocates' campaign to save the commission will cause Brownback to back away from his proposal.

He has not publicly promised a veto, but he's still defending his proposal, arguing that Kansas can have strong arts programs without a state agency and its related costs. He has until Memorial Day to act on the budget.

"The office has been preparing for the possibility of shutting down," said Arts Commission Chairman Henry Schwaller IV, president of a Hays real estate investment firm and a local arts council. "We've suspended all activities."

If Brownback vetoes the commission's budget as expected, Kansas could be the first state to abolish its arts agency.

Arts Commission supporters would need two-thirds majorities in both chambers to override his action, or 27 of 40 votes in the Senate and 84 of 125 votes in the House. Such votes would take place June 1, when lawmakers return for their short, formal adjournment ceremony.

Arts advocates saw a May 10 letter from Administration Secretary Dennis Taylor, notifying the commission of employee layoffs, as confirmation that Brownback will veto the funding. But the governor said Kansas law requires a month's notice for layoffs before state employees are laid off.

"We will make that determination shortly," he said.

Brownback proposed abolishing the Arts Commission to help close a projected budget shortfall that approached $500 million. But he didn't seek to eliminate all state funding for the arts: His budget included $200,000 for the state historical society to pass along to the new Kansas Arts Foundation, to ease the transition.

His administration said the commitment would allow the state to continue receiving federal arts funds to distribute across the state.

"My thinking is that we can still do that and not have state employees run it. That's the whole pitch with this," Brownback said last week. "You're not consuming a bunch of your dollars in Topeka."

Arts advocates said Brownback's administration is just wrong about federal funds and under his plan. They said the state would lose up to $1.2 million during the next fiscal year. The budget approved by legislators put all arts funding with the commission. If Brownback vetoes its appropriation, there are no state arts dollars.

Critics also question his plan as a cost-saving move. The appropriation for the Arts Commission is only 0.01 percent of the nearly $6.1 billion in spending financed with the state's general revenues.

"We have widespread support — statewide — for the Arts Commission," said Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton. "I would hope that the governor would maybe take another look at it and not veto that funding."

Arts advocates also said that state funding represents economic development. For example, Americans for the Arts said in a 2009 study that nonprofit arts and culture organizations — the type of groups supported by the Kansas commission — account for 4,600 jobs and $154 million in annual spending by themselves or their audiences.