Arts money well-spent

Gov. Sam Brownback’s proposal to privatize the Kansas Arts Commission and eliminate funding for public broadcasting is in keeping with his Senate voting record and the conservative orthodoxy about what can be considered the “core functions” of government. But it disregards the harm the cuts will do — especially given how little money would be saved, how disproportionately rural broadcasting stations would be affected, how many federal arts dollars could be sacrificed, and how much the state’s cultural life would be diminished.

As it is, per capita spending in Kansas is 29 cents on the arts and 57 cents on public broadcasting (compared with the $12.70 per capita, for example, spent on legislative and elected officials).

The governor’s fiscal 2012 budget proposal would zero out the $1.6 million in state funding for public TV and radio stations in Kansas and cut the Kansas Arts Commission’s annual state funding from $815,000 to just $200,000 for its one-year transition into a private, nonprofit organization called the Kansas Arts Council.

According to arts advocates, as Kansas eliminated its arts funding and became the only state in the country without at least a quasigovernmental arts agency, it would cut off its access to $778,300 in federal matching money, also jeopardizing $437,000 it gets from the multistate Mid-America Arts Alliance. Such a potential loss of federal funds has been enough to stave off proposed privatization of other states’ arts commissions, including in cash-strapped California.

Surely even those who don’t care about the loss of federal dollars — and support the latest GOP efforts on Capitol Hill to eliminate funding for arts and public broadcasting — can see that a private state arts organization would not have the stature of a state agency. Rather than strategically make grants of public funds to arts organizations so they can use that endorsement to leverage private dollars, it suddenly would compete for private money with those very groups. And the lost state grants would be hard to replace for local arts groups: Public funds can help pay for basics, but private donors favor special, high-profile programs.

As for public broadcasting, its rich array of programming would be especially at risk in rural Kansas. High Plains Public Radio in Garden City and Smoky Hills Public Television in Bunker Hill, for example, would lose 20 and 22 percent of their budgets, respectively — money not easily offset by local donations. The stations that serve the cities would be hurt, too. But if state dollars evaporate, they at least have much bigger pools of potential private donors to make up the difference.

Then there is the cost of such shortsighted budget cuts in lost jobs in the creative fields and the revenues they generate, and in the lost opportunities for children to discover the artistic gifts and other interests that can fire their imaginations and enrich their entire lives. And as it hunts for new businesses and professionals, Kansas should be endorsing and fostering the arts. Instead, it’s making national headlines for devaluing them, just as it recently did for doubting evolution.

A story that’s being much retold these days in Britain, where arts funding is threatened by deficit reduction proposals, certainly applies here. When his finance minister suggested that arts funding be cut to support the war effort, conservative British Prime Minister Winston Churchill is said to have replied, “Then what are we fighting for?”

If Brownback can’t see for himself how access to public radio and TV and the arts helps “grow the state,” as he likes to say, it will be up to lawmakers to nix both proposals and be more creative about finding other budget cuts — for the good of Kansas’ cultural identity, quality of life, and ability to compete for businesses, workers and visitors.