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Lawmakers Quibble Over Source Of Arts Funding In Pennsylvania Budget

Mark Nootbaar
90.5 fm WESA
State funding for arts organizations, like the City Theatre on the South Side, could become dependent on non-tax revenues.

It’s been a good news, bad news year for the arts when it comes to the state budget debate. 

The budgets proposed by both Gov. Tom Wolf and the House Republican Caucus keep funding for the Pennsylvania Council for the Arts at $9.6 million, as well as $2 million for museums.

However, both budget proposals move the funding out of the general budget where it has traditionally resided.

The governor’s plan funds the arts and other line items through the issuance of bonds. But the Republican Caucus rejected that proposal.

The Republican plan calls for the arts to be funded through and endowment created with funds generated by the privatization of the state liquor system, leasing of radio frequencies controlled by the state and additional one-time revenue streams. 

“We are looking at this opportunity right now to really reinvent how Pennsylvania government looks,” House Republican Caucus spokesman Steve Miskin said. “We’re trying to get back to the core functions of government. What should government be doing?”

Miskin said transportation, public safety and education are core functions, but the arts are not.

“So the idea was, some of these things that there is still interest in funding, let’s create this endowment account,” he said.

Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council CEO Mitch Swain said the idea of an endowment for the arts is a good one in general.

“Except there really aren’t any details as to how that would work,” Swain said. “And you have to have a pretty large endowment to support taking almost $10 million out of it every year.”

The expectation is that it would take 20 years to fully fund the endowment.

Swain and representatives of other arts groups were in Harrisburg this week lobbying members of the Pennsylvania Senate, asking them to put the arts back into the general fund until new revenue streams are secured.  The senate has yet to vote on a spending plan.

“If either one of those ideas was in place right now, we would be very interested in supporting that,” Swain said. “But they don’t exist, so what we’re hoping is in the meantime we can stay in the budget and work to come up with dedicated funding for the arts.”

Swain said he is cautiously optimistic that the funding will be put back into the general budget, which is expected to be approved somewhere around $31.5 billion.

“If we had to get a little bit of a cut and stayed in the budget and then could work towards a larger solution that had dedicated funding,” Swain said. “I think that would be a real positive in this situation.”

The budget, by law, has to be passed by June 30.