Full Senate to hear plan that could save Arts Commission

TOPEKA — A resolution to block Gov. Sam Brownback's proposal to abolish the state Arts Commission will go to the full Senate, a committee decided Thursday.

Before a hearing room packed with artists, art lovers and high school students, Sen. Roger Reitz, R-Manhattan, proposed a resolution of disapproval against the governor's executive reorganization order — or ERO — abolishing the commission and replacing it with a private-sector nonprofit group to be called the Kansas Arts Foundation.

The committee approved Reitz's resolution, putting in jeopardy the governor's plan to transfer the duties of the Arts Commission to the foundation and the Kansas State Historical Society.

"It's critical that the Kansas Arts Commission remain a state agency and be funded at its current level," Reitz told the committee.

Reitz's committee resolution would need to be approved by the full Senate in order to stop the reorganization.

In question is whether the governor's proposed partnership of the Historical Society and the foundation could effectively solicit funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Mid-America Arts Alliance. In the past year, those two organizations provided about $1.2 million in support to the arts in Kansas, including more than $400,000 from the alliance.

The NEA has indicated to the state that while it probably could fund the partnership, it would need to see the governor's plan developed further.

The alliance was more dubious. Recipients of support from the alliance must be state arts agencies, a letter from executive director Mary Kennedy McCabe said.

"It all boils down to money," said Sen. Steve Abrams, R-Arkansas City. "Everybody here supports the arts. The question is, which is the best way for the arts to get the most money?"

The governor proposed that $200,000 be allotted to fund the transition of the commission to the Historical Society. Beyond that, the Arts Foundation would bear the responsibility to raise money for the arts through private donations.

At stake in Sedgwick County is money for such attractions as the Wichita Art Museum, the Kansas African American Museum, the Wichita Center for the Arts, the Orpheum Theatre and the Wichita Symphony, among others. Last year, the Arts Commission contribution amounted to $114,362 to county organizations.

In the end, the committee was uncertain that the governor's proposal could secure NEA and alliance funds while raising sufficient private donations to offset the loss of state funds.

"We have an established funding source on one hand, and then we have what amounts to, in my opinion, a hypothesis," said Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City.

One question put to the committee before the vote remains to be answered: What will the governor do to fund the arts if his reorganization order fails?

Landon Fulmer, policy director for the governor, would not say whether the governor would veto funding for the Arts Commission if the Senate blocks his reorganization plan.

"It's too early to speculate on that," Fulmer said. "We'll wait to see what the Senate does. But it does get more complicated if the ERO fails."

Should the Senate approve Reitz's resolution, it would create a conflict in the budget.

The $200,000 to the Historical Society is in the budget. Nothing is allocated to the Kansas Arts Commission, which was allocated a little more than $800,000 in the 2011 budget. The governor could approve money for the commission, which would remain in existence, or he could move only the $200,000, leaving the commission underfunded compared with past years.

"EROs are tricky. They can go different ways, and they have ramifications that have to be sorted out," said Sen. President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, when he learned of the committee's decision. "The money will have to be put back in the budget, or it may be cut. It's hard to anticipate what will happen."

The Arts Foundation newly appointed by Brownback will remain intact regardless of what happens to the reorganization order, the group's president said.

"The foundation is already established and we've already begun doing our work," said Linda Browning Weis of Manhattan, president of the foundation. "We just have to continue our job. We'll get about the mission of supporting the arts in Kansas."