NEA FY2012 Budget Questioned at House Hearing

May 11, 2011

From: Thomas L. Birch, Legislative Counsel
Vol. 14:11

NEA FY2012 Budget Questioned at House Hearing 

On May 11, Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID), chair of the House Subcommittee on Interior Appropriations, opened the hearing on the fiscal year 2012 budget proposed for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) with the warning that “intense competition for federal dollars” demands that legislators in Congress must examine not only the size of the budget proposed but also the quality of programs funded to serve their constituents so as not to erode the support the NEA has enjoyed in Congress. “It is the role of this subcommittee,” Simpson said, “to ensure that we don’t lose that support.”

In his opening statement preceding the testimony of NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman, Simpson pointed to the work of the state arts agencies in carrying out the mission of the NEA, recalling that Congress in 1997 had mandated that 40% of the arts endowment’s program funds must be allocated to the states because state arts agencies are in a better position to reach their communities. Simpson expressed his displeasure over the failure of the NEA in its 2012 budget proposal to comply with the 40% mandate by positioning Our Town outside the program grants category, saying it was “of great concern” and “a troubling precedent” that undermines the support for state arts agencies.

In his testimony, Landesman presented to the subcommittee the Obama administration’s FY2012 budget proposal of $146.255 million for the arts endowment, a decrease of 13% from the 2010 level of appropriations, which he said was “consistent with the agency’s fiscal 2008 budget. . . . We have worked to make the smartest decisions possible within the current fiscal reality.” Those decisions, Landesman explained, were guided by the agency’s newly revised strategic plan, “which has as its central theme the agency’s desire to gather and communicate even more data and analysis about the impact of federal funding on the arts.”

Landesman referred to the state arts agencies as “key partners in so much of the agency’s work.” He went on to explain that the NEA is asking Congress for a clarification of the kind of funds that states use to match NEA support and permission to develop “narrow guidelines” governing a temporary waiver of the match.

When asked by Simpson whether the NEA planned to continue support for the Shakespeare in America’s Communities program, Landesman said that funds would still be available through the NEA’s theatre program, but that the agency was able to save $400,000 in administrative costs by taking the program away from a third-party administrator and folding it into the agency’s program. Asked about the Big Read, the NEA chair said that its funding would be “protected in 2012.”

Simpson pursued a line of questioning about the Our Town initiative, which he called “a different role” for the NEA in “community development” that perhaps is “better left to other agencies” such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The money allocated to Our Town—$5 million—comes, Simpson suggested, at the expense of other programs. When Landesman named examples of the kind of projects he envisions for Our Town, Simpson responded that those were projects that were funded outside of NEA support before Our Town launched.

Simpson went on to assert that Congress does not want to “sacrifice those programs that are making a difference,” and referred to concern from members of the National Council on the Arts that the NEA was reducing funding streams to the states. He asked Landesman to explain the role of the council. The main role, Landesman said, is to vote on grants, not to set general NEA policy, which he said is done by him as chair of the NEA. He allowed that members of the National Council on the Arts “don’t necessarily agree on everything being done by the NEA.”

When asked by Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA), ranking member of the subcommittee, why the NEA budget was proposing to cut funds to the states for underserved populations by more than $3 million, Landesman said “that must be a proportional cut.”

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) focused his questioning on what he called grants that could “lend themselves to ridicule,” citing NEA funds for the International Accordion Festival, the Fabric Workshop and Museum and the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Landesman said he was familiar with the San Francisco group and praised them for their international recognition.

Flake questioned the judgment in awarding grants to organizations affiliated with universities with large endowments that might otherwise provide the needed support. He listed grants awarded to Boston University, Notre Dame, Columbia and Yale. Landesman suggested that these were for productions or projects of theatres or small presses, for example, that are associated with a large institution but are not necessarily funded by the university.

In response to plans announced by the NEA in its budget proposal to eliminate the National Heritage awards, Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY) cautioned against discontinuing the fellowships. He said that he had heard concerns from community groups in his congressional district about the elimination of these awards, which he called “an important commitment.”

The House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee may be expected to begin drafting a 2012 appropriations bill in June. The Senate, which does not plan a hearing on the NEA budget proposal, would follow thereafter.