Speaker of the House John Boehner, hostile to the arts.

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.


A Response From Rep Rukavina.

After reading Max's article, I felt compelled to write Rep Rukavina. I didn't want to be accusatory, but at the same time, I wanted to make it clear that I want him to support the arts and stand up to the Republicans and others who would attack them and try and twist the Legacy Amendment. Here is what I wrote:

Dear Rep. Rukavina,
I recently read of your attempt last year to have Legacy Amendment funds put towards solar panels instead of towards what it was meant to be put to, arts, clean water, parks, trails,and outdoor and cultural heritage. As you probably know, Gov. Pawlenty during his administration did nothing but cut and cut and attack the arts. He 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.

Cutting the arts is an easy way for Republicans to get a lot of hay from their constituents and make themselves look good. I don't expect that kind of thing from DFL'ers like yourself. You need to protect the Arts from Tea-Party Bachmann Republicans who have all the cultural understanding of a gerbil. Don't join them in attacking the arts. Minnesota has an incredible tradition of supporting the arts and creating great artists, and the Legacy Act was supposed to maintain and strengthen that after the horrible attacks of the Pawlenty Administration.

Be a real DFL'er and support the Arts. Protect them from the new Republicans in the State Senate and House who have little to no understanding of the Arts or appreciation of them either. Be true to what the Legacy Act is supposed to be doing. Make no mistake, these Republican majorities in Washington and now in St. Paul will attack the arts non-stop. Its easy for them, and they enjoy it. Protect them.
Thank you,
Matt Saxe

I admit, the gerbil comment was a little harsh. But that wasn't directed at him, but at Bachmann tea-party Republicans. And to be fair, I have a good Republican friend who, while he dissaproves of the NEA getting federal funding, he at least goes to see plays at small theatres and the Fringe. He pretty much doesn't like federal funding of most things. Still.

Just this morning, while taking a quick break from work to check my personal email I saw that Rep Rukavina had responed to my email-here is his response:

The article was wrong, I never went after "legacy" money, I redirected some LCCMR dollars for the solar project. I'm a supporter of the arts, you should look at my 24 year record on that. I'm tired of buying more land whenwe can't take care of what we have. I also reserve the right to exercise my right as an elected legislator to do my job as I see fit. I'll continue to do what is right for the good people of Mn.
Sent from my iPhone

I don't know if you find this rude, but I did. So I wrote him back. Here's my response to him:

Dear Rep Rukavina,
I must say I am almost shocked by the rudeness of your response to my email regarding The Legacy Act and supporting the arts in Minnesota.

Not only do you fail to use a proper greeting at the beginning of the email, or use a polite conclusion such as "Sincerely" at the end, but I find the tone of your entire response terse and downright rude to say the least. Why do you think you can address me in such a manner? Why do you put Legacy, in quotes, as if The Legacy Act doesn't exist? I would be happy to look at your record on supporting the arts in MN. Where do I see it? On your personal website? Can you cite some examples of your support in your 24 years in office? I understand you being "tired of buying more land when we can't take care of what we have", but how does that effect supporting the arts? You of course have the right to exercise your right as the representative of your district to do your job as you see fit, as Edmund Burke said:

"Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion."

I don't question that. However, I don't think my encouragement of you to support the arts and inquiry into the issue of the solar panels you requested warranted your response. I am sending you this reply and posting your response to me on the MinnesotaPlaylist article I read about this on. I hope your reply to this will be less abrasive then your previous email and that you will support the arts as you say you do as vigorously as you defend yourself.

Sincerely (See that's how its done)
Matt Saxe

How will he respond? If you want to know, I'll let you know when or if he does.