The arts under a Republican Congress
We’re recently into a new congress, both nationally and locally, with Republicans regaining a fair amount of power. This past Monday saw a show of bipartisanship that’s hard not to interpret as an act of pure theater -- for one night, the night of the presidential State of the Union address, congresspeople sat side-by-side, regardless of party, and wore black and white ribbons to commemorate the recent shooting in Arizona. Obama made some pleasant noises. But what next?
Well, it’s hard to know the difference between cynicism and pragmatism sometimes, but it is hard to imagine this fresh spirit of bipartisanship will stick. The Republicans have spent the past two years aggressively blocking every piece of legislation that Obama has proposed, even when he proposes their own ideas. The newest batch of congresspeople include 32 percent of those endorsed by the reactionary Tea Party. And the Republicans managed to make their own unofficial response, mouthed by Minnesota’s own Michele Bachmann, who refused to sit between two Democrats, and likewise refused to wear a ribbon. And her message was one of deep budget cuts.
Make no mistake, Bachmann wasn’t going solo here. She was what she always is -- the useful idiot of the Republican Party, mouthing their agenda as they pass her off as some uncontrollable renegade. Bachmann’s retort wasn’t some unexpected and unofficial response. Hers was the actual Republican response to Obama, and it’s what we can expect from the party in general. They will not raise taxes. They will, instead, cut, cut, cut.
In Minnesota, we’ve been witness to this philosophy under Tim Pawlenty, who recklessly cut services rather than raise taxes, starving the state rather than making any sort of intelligent fat-trimming, and the results are a forecasted $6.2 billion budget shortfall. And Pawlenty made extensive use of federal money to make ends meet. Now that federal money may be on the chopping block.
What this may mean for the arts
There are a lot of questions this raises. When conservative make cuts, they typically cut from the social safety net of health and human services, rather than the military, or corporate welfare, or programs that directly benefit their constituency, such as Medicaid, and all of this is worth being concerned about. But, as this is an arts magazine, the question that concerns us most directly is the following: What might this new congress do to the arts?
Representative John Boehner, the new Speaker of the House, sent a pretty clear message this past month when he bullied the Smithsonian into removing a video in a LGBT-themed exhibit that showed a few seconds of ants on a crucifix. He openly threatened the institution’s funding -- never mind that the exhibit was privately funded. And, more than that, he exhibit a naked hostility to art that doesn’t suit his tastes. It was the opening salvo on what may be a war on art over the next few years.
In the recent round of budget discussions on the Hill, conservatives have mapped out their agenda, and, as mentioned, it is cut, cut, cut. The Republican Study Committee, chaired by Rep. Jim Jordan, had their suggestion: slash cultural funding to zero. Included in this is $167.5 million in cuts for both the NEA and NEH. Also on the chopping block: the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. As Dana Milbank of the Washington Post pointed out, this isn’t just trimming the budget. This is culture war.
What this may mean for Minnesota
And what will our new, Republican-controlled state bicameral mean for Minnesota, which has long had a healthy respect for arts funding? Well, we are a bit unique in that we have a Legacy Amendment, which specifically earmarks tax dollars for clean water, parks, trails, arts, and outdoor and cultural heritage. This was put to the ballot in 2008 and approved by a majority of voters. But many conservatives were opposed to the Legacy Amendment, and they have significant say in how it gets spent, and demonstrated by Rep. Tom Rukavina when he last year pushed for Legacy money to be spent on solar panels. Now, Rukavina, among others, is calling for Legacy funds to be spent creatively -- in many cases, these creative uses are well outside the intention of the Amendment, including reimbursing nursing homes.
Additionally, there’s a budget-cutting bill working its way through the Senate right now that would slash $200 million immediately, with another bill demanding the Governor Mark Dayton cut an additional $125. Where would these cuts come from? The bills aren’t clear. But the arts can be an appealing target for cutting. In 2009, as an example, Tim Pawlenty proposed cutting arts spending by 50 percent; he had already cut it back by 32 percent in 2003, which was less than he had initially proposed, which was 40 percent.
This is not to be unduly alarmist -- at this moment, on the local level, there are no budget-cutting proposals that directly target the arts on the table. But $6 billion is an awfully large hole to fill, and it’s worth being aware that there is the real possibility that arts funding might take a hit, especially if you rely on that funding.