At both the state and federal levels, budgets and policies are in a state of flux. Alaskans and all Americans are watching their elected officials work to fund government in a manner that reflects the competing desires for continued programs and fiscal prudence. It is not an easy process, and we owe these public officials a debt of gratitude for their continued efforts. But we need not leave them entirely to themselves in their endeavors, indeed legislators can benefit greatly in their efforts when they hear from their constituents.
In our nation’s capital this past week, Congress averted a shutdown of the federal government by passing a continuing resolution (a way for government operations to go on unchanged when negotiations have yet to reach an agreement on a budget plan for the current fiscal year). One agency that was spared the undesirable and unnecessary outcome of a shutdown was the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The NEA had faced an existential threat earlier this year with the release of a proposed budget that suggested eliminating all funding for the NEA as well as other cultural agencies including the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute of Library &Museum Services.
The good news from Washington is that the NEA is still going strong, and it appears that the agency will be well through the end of the current fiscal year. Alaska’s congressional delegation is supportive of cultural agencies. Of particular importance is the fact that Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, chairs the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior &Related Agencies, which writes the budget for the NEA and many other important parts of the federal government affecting Alaska.
Murkowski has been a champion of reasonable funding for the NEA, and is in a key position to prevent radical and illogical proposals (e.g., eliminating the NEA) from ever actually happening. Hopefully once final budget terms for the rest of the 2017 fiscal year are in place, support for the NEA will be reflected in the budget for the spending period that will begin in October. If there are to be reductions to the NEA’s budget, it is likely they would be cautiously and thoughtfully crafted so as to minimize the harmful effects on the Americans who benefit most from the NEA’s programs and services.
The NEA’s most important and vital program is its partnerships with state arts agencies, including the Alaska State Council on the Arts (ASCA) on which I serve as chairman. By policy direction of Congress going back two decades, 40 percent of the NEA’s budget must be passed through to state and territorial arts agencies and regional arts organizations, because this causes these funds to be leveraged by dollar-for-dollar matching by state legislatures. When the state agencies in turn grant money to arts organizations and projects, more funds are leveraged, mostly from non-governmental sources. Congress’s modest investment in the NEA produces vast amounts of artistic and cultural activity which enriches individual Americans’ lives, helps students overcome learning disabilities, heals wounded and traumatized solders, eases the pains of aging, and so many other good things. At the same time, economic activity occurs with all these projects and programs, strengthening the nation and helping all Americans prosper.
ASCA has worked over the course of the last year through the legislative session to restructure itself so it can be the best possible partner with the NEA. House Bill 137 passed the Alaska House of Representatives unanimously and with only a single vote in opposition in the Alaska Senate. When it becomes law, ASCA will be a state corporation with much more independence in our operational capacity. The new format will help ASCA receive non-governmental moneys much more nimbly, and spend the money following procurement rules that don’t waste time and effort. ASCA will have a volunteer Board of Trustees appointed by the governor, continuing to serve every part of the Great Land while overseeing a public corporation in the best interest of all Alaskans. ASCA will still be part of the State of Alaska, eligible for NEA funds.
ASCA is extremely grateful to the leaders of the Senate Education Committee and House Education Committee for sponsoring our restructuring legislation, and the bipartisan approach to this effort was integral to its successful passage this session. Alaskans can continue to look forward to learning more soon about ASCA’s new form, and the ways in which we will strengthen and expand our working relationship with our partners, including the NEA.
• Ben Brown is a lifelong Alaskan and Juneau resident, and serves as chairman for the Alaska State Council on the Arts.