Democratic challenger Paul Davis had just picked up the support of arts supporters when Gov. Sam Brownback’s campaign went to work.
Within hours of the Oct. 6 endorsement, the governor started patching over old wounds caused when he tried to abolish Kansas state arts funding three years ago.
Brownback’s campaign quickly issued a statement pointing to reforms that he claimed led to increased arts funding, a move likely aimed at winning the rural vote in a narrow election.
Restructuring the commission, Brownback said in his statement, “has resulted in an increase of funding” flowing directly to arts programs across Kansas.
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But critics pointed out that the future of arts funding is not as promising as the governor’s statement makes it appear.
While the governor eventually restored money for the arts that he struck from the state budget, funding has been cut the last two years.
Brownback agreed to put $700,000 back in the state budget for the arts in 2013, but that amount was trimmed to $200,000 for 2014 and 2015.
Arts supporters say the governor inflates the amount of the arts budget by using a much higher number totaling more than $1 million that includes a federal grant and state money carried over from a previous year.
“They are simply whitewashing the situation,” said Henry Schwaller, a Democrat from Hays who serves on the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission. “They are trying to make the agency sound better than it is.”
The Brownback campaign didn’t respond to Schwaller’s criticism, but the governor’s administration said the arts organization has slashed administrative costs to ensure that more money goes directly to the arts.
A spokesman for the Kansas Commerce Department, which oversees arts funds, said most of the money granted under the former arts commission went to support the general operations of arts groups.
The way the grants are given now, they are “program-based and no longer fund general operating expenses for arts organizations,” department spokesman Dan Lara wrote in an email.
While the amount of money at stake is a fraction of the state budget, it’s politically important to many small rural Kansas towns relying on the money for community theater, festivals and concerts.
The issue exploded on the governor during his first year in office when he vetoed arts funding. Eliminating the money caused the state to eventually lose more than a $1 million in matching grants that included a mix of federal and private funding that has since returned.
Yet Brownback clearly isn’t ready to cede the issue to Davis in a tight election that could turn on small-town voters in southeast or western Kansas.
“It’s a potent political issue,” said Washburn University political scientist Bob Beatty. “Arts funding over the years has touched many small communities across this state. No candidate wants the impression they don’t care about small-town Kansas.”
Another member of the newly constituted commission, Democrat Larry Meeker of Lake Quivira, said Brownback described funding for the arts accurately in his statement — for one select year.
“It’s a misrepresentation of the financial health of the commission and the funding it has to make available,” said Meeker, who was appointed to the new arts commission by Davis.
Revenue estimates provided by the Commerce Department suggest that the money for arts funding could be roughly between $400,000 and $500,000 less this year.
It’s a loose number that could fluctuate depending on expenses and how much money the state collects from an arts contribution checkoff on income tax forms and the sale of arts license plates.
Shortly after the Coalition for Kansas Arts endorsed Davis in Wichita, the Brownback campaign released a statement from the commission’s co-chair saying the “heartbeat” of the newly created arts commission is “alive and well.”
Brownback appointee Connie McLean said the commission is getting more value for the money it spends by streamlining administrative expenses and evaluating the effect arts projects have on the community.
“We get more bang for our buck, now,” McLean said in an interview. “We are much smarter because we’ve had to make do with so much less.”
Asked if the arts were sufficiently funded, McLean said, “We’re happy to have anything, quite frankly.”