During the 2010 campaign, Republican candidates claimed their rise to power would usher a new era of transparency and sunshine into North Carolina's budgetary process. But last Monday on Arts Day 2011, the annual statewide gathering of artists and arts advocates at the state Legislature, committee rooms remained closed and the rumor mill swirled. Some 375 activists—more than 50 percent more than the number attending Arts Day last year—met with representatives and senators who weren't in meetings and then compared notes.
"Legislators were asking us if we had any information on the budget," PlayMakers Repertory Company's managing director Hannah Grannemann reported after a mid-morning meeting with representatives from Orange County.
Occasionally, budget writers and committee chairs would enter or briefly emerge from meetings with differing accounts. That morning, Rep. Harold Brubaker, senior chair on the House Appropriations Committee, told constituents from Randolph County to expect a 15 percent across-the-board cut. After noon, Rep. Linda Johnson, House Appropriations Committee chairperson, told constituents that, after starting from an initial negotiating position of 40 percent in arts funding cuts in an earlier meeting, her committee was now recommending a 10 percent cut—Gov. Beverly Perdue's budgetary recommendation, which had been subsequently endorsed by the arts community. The relief was visible on the faces of Arts Day organizers as they got the news at the close of a wrap-up session at the N.C. Museum of History just before 3 p.m.
One hour later, the story changed. The news spread quickly among the departing advocates, by word of mouth, telephone, text and email.
The proposed budget by the House of Representatives was now online at ncleg.net—with a recommended cut of $1.5 million, or 23 percent, in the two major arts grants programs funded by the North Carolina Arts Council. (Only once in the last 20 years has the state made a greater reduction in arts funds—a 30 percent cut in 2001.) The same budget also called for elimination of separate line items for Manteo's Lost Colony, the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival and the Vagabond School of the Drama at Flat Rock Playhouse—all of which now have to look for what had been their combined additional funding of $479,000 in a common pot, which has just been reduced by 23 percent.
(As we go to press, a call has just gone out to oppose the House's proposal to completely defund state support of the North Carolina Humanities Council.)
The timing of the announcement, at the close of Arts Day, was almost surreal. Still, it made an appropriate cap to a season in which arts activists, lobbyists and some 850 arts organizations and school, community and civic groups in all 100 counties across the state have scrambled to get a clear picture of what the change in political power in Raleigh portends for arts funding in North Carolina.
The questions began, according to attendees, at a preliminary budgetary meeting for the Department of Cultural Resources on March 23. Such presentations are a budgetary rite of passage for state department heads and senior staff who are invariably greeted cordially—and then grilled for the next hour or two by legislators on various program metrics, achievements and efficiencies. But this year, witnesses expecting a potentially harder time from Republican legislators were nonplussed when questions about their budget were noticeably less challenging than in previous years.
By the eve of Arts Day, Karen Wells, executive director for Arts N.C., was telling delegates at a preconference briefing at the North Carolina Museum of Art that dealing with the first Republican-led state government in 110 years was "a new job for me; a job I haven't necessarily known or my board has known before. We don't have any history. You don't even know how the budget moves through the committees or at what speed. There's no way to anticipate what might happen."
Louisa Warren, senior policy advocate with the North Carolina Justice Center, called the "sheer newness" of the new legislators "something we've been trying to figure out. We used to know who held the power: who you needed to go talk to in the Legislature to get things done. Now it's not as obvious."
In that meeting, Wells estimated that three-fourths of the House's General Government Committee, which oversees arts funding, are freshmen legislators: "You know they've never heard about the Department of Cultural Resources' funding. And they've especially never heard about the N.C. Arts Council's funding."
For Warren, the number of inexperienced new faces raised disturbing questions. "We're not born knowing how to govern. We're not born knowing how to pass a state budget, how to shepherd a bill through the legislative process; not born with knowledge of particular issues. Though (the Republicans) said governing was going to be a transparent process, it hasn't been very transparent. And it's moving really, really fast—so fast that it's left us all a little breathless."
During the afternoon session before Arts Day, speakers returned to metrics that should convince legislators preoccupied with the state's economic health.
According to research from the N.C. Arts Council, the creative industry is now second only to agriculture as the largest industry in the state, sustaining 300,000 jobs, or just over 5.5 percent of the workforce, and generating $41 billion in products and services annually.
Arts grants are the seed money that makes it possible for arts organizations to raise other funds; for every dollar spent on them, just under $17 is generated in matching funds from foundations, individual donors, businesses and local governments. When people attend nonprofit arts events, they spend, beyond the admission price, an average of $27.79 per person on meals, transportation and other expenses related to the event that goes into the local economy.
"[The legislators] want to make sure the economy improves," said Pierce Egerton, chairman of Arts N.C.'s board of directors. "Our goal is to help them figure out how to do that. The arts aren't revenue consumers. They're revenue producers."
While there were reports of Republican champions for the arts (including Reps. Peter Brunstetter, Bill McGee and Speaker Pro Tem Dale Folwell from Forsyth County, and Mike Stone from Lee County), Arts Day participants were also told that legislators had earlier considered removing funding from all nonprofit organizations, not just those affiliated with the arts. At a reception for advocates that evening, most of the attendees declined to speculate to the Indy just how many legislators were opposed to arts funding. One seasoned, long-time arts advocate guessed 25 percent of the legislative body—and that the number had doubled since the last election.
The following morning, the legislative haze still hadn't burned away for most Arts Day advocates—and a number of their representatives. Constituents reported that legislative coalitions from Cumberland and Mecklenberg counties—Democrats and Republicans—claimed not to know what was in the proposed House budget.
Then Reps. Brubaker and Johnson advised their constituents to expect the 15 or 10 percent cuts mentioned above—hours before the real cut, of $1.5 million, was announced. "I was flabbergasted," said Noelle Scott, executive director of the Cabarrus Arts Council."The process seemed so rigorous this year, and it seemed to be totally unpredictable, even more so than in years past."
The experience of hearing one amount from her legislators and reading hours later of a cut more than twice as large "was so totally out of my experience with these folks, too. Our legislators have consistently been supportive of the arts. In the 10 years I've been working with each one of them, they've always been as candid as they can about what the situation actually is. My guess—I don't know—is that they were surprised, too."
At least Brubaker was technically correct. At the end of the day, the proposed budget for the Department of Cultural Resources had received a 15.3 percent cut—though different amounts were taken from its various divisions.
But three constituents from Onslow County—Connie Wenner, Bernie Rosage Jr. and Stephen Greer, with the county's Council for the Arts—were surprised when Rep. George Cleveland, chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on General Government, opened the conversation by informing them that the state of North Carolina was "insolvent."
Then surprise turned to dismay.
"He just seemed to have already made his mind up and just wanted to get us off his chart as quick as he could," said Greer. "We were in and out of there in three minutes, tops," said Wenner, "and we were in the hall saying, 'What was that? What just happened here?'"
"He was rude," noted Rosage. "We'd made a packet of information about the arts back home. The cover was a letter from a 5th-grade student in Onslow County who wrote him, telling him she wanted arts funding not to be cut. And his exact words were, 'Throw it on my desk and I might read it.'"
"The Grassroots grants are what funds a lot of what happens in Onslow County," Rosage continued, "and some of the biggest cuts are there. So he's definitely hurt the area he represents, because that's where we get most of our money for the arts."
Neither Cleveland nor Johnson responded to the Indy's requests for comments on this story.